Although Bengal was part of the Mauryan Empire during the third century BC, it first came to prominence in its own right under the Guptas in the fourth century AD. So dependent was it on trade with the Mediterranean that the fall of Rome caused a sharp decline, only reversed with the rise of the Pala dynasty in the eighth century.
After a short-lived period of rule by the highly cultured Senas, based at Gaur, Bengal was brought under Muslim rule at the end of the twelfth century by the first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din-Aibak. Sher Shah Suri, who briefly usurped power from the Mughals in the mid-sixteenth century, developed the infrastructure and built the Grand Trunk Road, running all the way to the Northwest Province on the borders of his native Afghanistan. Akbar reconquered the territory in 1574, before the advent of the Europeans in the eighteenth century.
The Portuguese, who were the first to set up a trading community beside the Hooghly, were soon joined by the British, Dutch, French and many others. Rivalry between them eventually resulted in the ascendancy of the British, with the only serious indigenous resistance coming from the tutelary kingdom of Murshidabad, led by the young Siraj-ud-Daula. His attack on the fledgling British community of Calcutta in 1756 culminated in the infamous Black Hole incident, when British prisoners suffocated to death. Vengeance, in the form of a British army from Madras under Robert Clive, arrived a year later. The defeat of Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey paved the way for British domination of the entire Subcontinent. Bengal became the linchpin of the British East India Company and its lucrative trading empire, until the company handed over control to the Crown in 1858.
Up to 1905, Bengal encompassed Orissa (Odisha) and Bihar; it was then split down the middle by Lord Curzon, leaving East Bengal and Assam on one side and Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal on the other. The move aroused bitter resentment, and the rift it created between Hindus and Muslims was a direct cause of the second Partition, in 1947, when East Bengal became East Pakistan. During the war with Pakistan in the early 1970s that resulted in the creation of an independent Bangladesh, up to ten million refugees fled into West Bengal. Shorn of its provinces, and with the capital moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, the story of West Bengal in the twentieth century was largely a chronicle of decline.
The state’s political life has been dominated by a protracted – and sometimes violent – struggle between the Congress and in recent years, the breakaway Trinamool Congress, against the major left-wing parties: the Marxist Communist Party of India, or CPI(M), and the Marxist-Leninist Naxalites (Communist Party of India (ML)). In the 1960s and 1970s, the latter launched an abortive but bloody attempt at revolution. Bolstered by a strong rural base, the CPI(M) and allies emerged victorious in 1977 under the enigmatic Jyoti Basu (d.2010), weathering the collapse of world communism, and heralding the decades-long dominance by the Left Front. This long dominance by the CPI(M) came to a dramatic end in 2011, when the firebrand politician, Mamata Banerjee, who had honed her political skills supporting the oppressed poor in two notorious campaigns against industrialization, swept to power. While she inherited a state of political and industrial turmoil, Didi, or “Sister” as she is commonly known, has yet to redress the imbalance in the infrastructure and there are many who feel that she has been neither able to transcend the grassroots struggle that brought her to prominence, nor to comprehend the complexities of what was once, and still is, a dynamic industrial powerhouse.
In Kolkata – booming with expatriate wealth and a surge in business confidence – political turmoil can seem a world away. Meanwhile in the north of the state, ethnic political groups are calling for autonomy from Bengal. The fabric and future shape of the current state is by no means certain.