West Bengal

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Bengal (bĕng-gôlˈ, bĕn–), region, 77,442 sq mi (200,575 sq km), E India and Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal. The inland section is mountainous, with peaks up to 12,000 ft (3,660 m) high in the northwest, but most of Bengal is the fertile land of the Ganges-Brahmaputra alluvial plains and delta. Along the coast are richly timbered jungles, swamps, and islands. The heavy monsoon rainfall and predominantly warm weather make possible two harvests a year. The population, which speaks mainly Bengali, is ethnically quite homogeneous but is almost equally divided between Muslims and Hindus.

In the 3d cent. B.C., Bengal belonged to the empire of Aśoka. It became a political entity in the 8th cent. A.D. under the Buddhist Pala kings. In the 11th cent. the Hindu Sena dynasty arose from the remnants of the Pala empire. Bengal was conquered (c.1200) by Muslims of Turkic and Pashtun descent. When the Portuguese began their trading activities (late 15th cent.), Bengal was a part of the Muslim Mughal empire. The British East India Company established its first settlement in 1642 and extended its occupation by conquering the native princes and expelling the Dutch and French. Muslim control of Bengal ended with the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daula by British forces under Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

Under British control, Bengal was a presidency of India. At various times the neighboring provinces of Assam, Bihar, and Orissa were administered under the Bengal presidency. In 1905 Bengal was split into the provinces of Bengal (W) and East Bengal and Assam (E). Bengal was reestablished as a single province in 1912, but two non-Bengali-speaking provinces, Bihar and Orissa in the west and Assam in the east, were split off. When India was partitioned in 1947, the province was divided along the line approximately separating the two main concentrations of the religious communities.

East Bengal, overwhelmingly Muslim in population, became East Pakistan in 1947 and the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971. West Bengal (2001 provisional pop. 80,221,171), 33,928 sq mi (87,874 sq km), with its capital at Kolkata (Calcutta), became a state of India. It is bordered by Bangladesh and the Indian state of Assam on the east; Nepal, Bhutan, and the state of Sikkim on the north; the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha (Orissa) on the west; and the Bay of Bengal on the south. A highly industrialized region, it has jute mills, steel-fabricating plants, and chemical industries, all mainly centered in the Hugliside industrial complex. Coal is mined and petroleum is refined.

In 1950, West Bengal absorbed the state of Cooch Behar. In the 1970s disputes between Hindus and Muslims, further complicated by droves of refugees from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and agitation by Maoist groups called Naxalites, created political instability. The 1980s saw an uprising by Gurkhas in the Darjeeling area, which became a semiautonomous district; some Gurkhas have continued to demand a separate state. Maoist rebels experienced a resurgence in the state in late 2008 and seized control of the region around Lalgarh, where farmers opposed the building of a steel plant; paramilitary forces moved in June, 2009, to regain control of the area. West Bengal is governed by a chief minister and cabinet responsible to a bicameral legislature with one elected house and by a governor appointed by the president of India. Famous Bengalis include poet and Nobel laureate Sir Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

West Bengal


a state in eastern India on the Gulf of Bengal, occupying the western Ganges Delta. Area, 88,000 sq km; population, 44.5 million (1971). The administrative center is Calcutta.

West Bengal is one of the world’s most densely populated regions, with 500 persons per sq km. The population is 24.5 percent urban, with three-fourths of the people living in Calcutta and its suburbs. About 84 percent of the population is Bengali. The remainder include the Bhojpuri, Magdhi, Santali, Oraoni, and Oriya; 79 percent are Hindu and 20 percent Muslim.

West Bengal is an alluvial lowland plain, formed by deposits of the tributaries and arms of the Ganges. In the west the elevations reach 300-400 m; the Himalayas rise in the north (in the Darjeeling region there are elevations as high as 4,000 m). The climate is tropical, moist, and monsoonal, with an annual precipitation of 1,400-1,800 mm in the plains and more than 3,000 mm in the mountains. June to October is the rainy season; November through February is dry and cool; and March through May is hot and dry. In the plains the average temperature in December is about 19°C; in May it is about 30°C. Fertile alluvial soil predominates. Woods and shrubs, covering about 10 percent of the territory, are concentrated in the north in the Himalayas and the Terai, although there is also foliage in the west and south (mangroves in the lower Ganges Delta).

West Bengal is economically one of the most highly developed states of India and an important agricultural region. According to the 1961 census, 57.8 percent of the population works in agriculture, producing 39.8 percent of the state’s income, and 18 percent works in industry and construction, producing 23.5 percent of the income. Foreign and Indian monopolies are of considerable importance in the economy.

Chronic food shortages are characteristic of West Bengal. Over 60 percent of the territory is under cultivation (5.7 million hectares [ha] in 1964-65); over one-fourth of this area is irrigated. There are large irrigation canals in the Damodar Mayurakshi-Kasai river system. Small-scale farmers, who commonly work rented land, predominate. Almost three-quarters of the crop (more than nine-tenths in the west) is rice; in 1966-67, 4.8 million tons were harvested, accounting for one-seventh of the national production and occupying first place in India. Vegetables, potatoes, fruits (mangoes, bananas), tobacco, leguminous plants, rapeseed, mustard, and corn (in the north) are other important crops. Jute is cultivated, with 496,000 ha under cultivation, and a harvest of 700,000 tons in 1967-68 (over half the Indian and more than one-fifth the world production). Kenaf is also raised. In the north, in the mountain and foothill regions of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, there are tea plantations covering 86,000 ha, with a crop of 87,000 tons in 1965. This region produces one-fourth of the nation’s tea. Fish are caught in ponds, rivers, and the sea.

West Bengal is one of the Indian states with highly developed industry, both light industry and food processing as well as heavy industry. The officially recorded industries of West Bengal, which employ 22.3 percent of Indian factory workers, are responsible for 20.6 percent of the officially recorded gross output in the country. Small industry is widespread. The Raniganj Basin yields annually one-third of the nation’s coal (about 23 million tons in 1967). One-fifth of India’s electrical energy is produced in West Bengal, with thermoelectric power plants in Calcutta (506 megawatts [MW] in 1966-67), Durgapur (435 and 305 MW), and Bandel (330 MW). Hydroelectric power plants are located on the Damodar and Jaldhak rivers.

Many manufacturing and processing industries are located in West Bengal. Jute processing employs 30.3 percent of all factory workers and produces 20.9 percent of the gross state product (1961)—nine-tenths of Indian and one-half of world production. Ferrous metallurgy produces one-third of the national production, with large factories in Burnpur and Durgapur. Metal-processing and machine-building industries, accounting for one-third of the national production, produce industrial equipment, machine tools, electrical devices, ships, railroad rolling stock, automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles. Chemical industries manufacture plastic and rubber items, chemicals and Pharmaceuticals, and paints and lacquers. Other industries are cottons and other textiles, knitted goods, glass, leather and footwear, polygraphy, and food processing (rice, tea, tobacco, and vegetable oils). These enterprises are concentrated in Calcutta and its suburbs (Howrah, Garden Reach, Bhatpara). The Raniganj Basin is also an important region for heavy industry, particularly the cities of Asansol, Burnpur, Durgapur, and Chittaranjan. A seaport in Haldia is being constructed (1972) on the lower Hooghly.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

West Bengal

a state of E India, on the Bay of Bengal: formed in 1947 from the Hindu area of Bengal; additional territories added in 1950 (Cooch Behar), 1954 (Chandernagor), and 1956 (part of Bihar); mostly low-lying and crossed by the Hooghly River. Capital: Calcutta. Pop.: 80 221 171 (2001). Area: 88 752 sq. km (34 260 sq. miles)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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