Since 1996 the International Institute of Social History has been actively collecting material on the social history of Bengal, an important area in Asia. This region, inhabited by some 200 million people, is today divided between Bangladesh and West Bengal (India).
The Institute's representative in the region, Shahriar Kabir, has been very active in collecting manuscripts, documents, posters, video recordings, pamphlets, objects, and books. Most of the material is in Bengali and English, but also in other languages of the region, e.g. Garo and Chakma. The idea is to preserve material on social movements, progressive politics and labour relations which is not being preserved systematically in the region itself, or which is in danger of getting lost. The Institute is keen to make such material available in the region itself by means of supporting local initiatives to set up 'civil society archives'.
To give you an idea of some of the material collected so far and available to the public, here are some examples:
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) collection
This collection on the CPI (M-L) contains letters from prison by Charu Majumdar (leader of the party during the influential Naxalbari uprising of 1967) to his wife Lila, video interviews with his children and party members in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, video interviews with participants and leaders of the Naxalbari movement, manuscript documents, and pamphlets.
The poster collection
The Institute has been given important collections of posters from Bangladesh and West Bengal, and continues to add to these. The posters cover political, cultural and development topics. You can find here a selection of 15 posters.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts collection
The extensive documentation archives of the Organizing Committee Chittagong Hill Tracts Campaign (OCCHTC) were donated to the Institute. They cover the period 1985-1997 and document the armed conflict between the Bangladesh army and a movement for regional autonomy in southeastern Bangladesh.
The Bengal Oral History Project
An ongoing project which now contains several dozens of video interviews by Shahriar Kabir with key figures in various 20th-century progressive movements in Bengal. Sometimes these personalities have also donated private papers to the Institute.
The Library collection
The Institute has also taken the initiative to build up a library collection on the social history of Bengal. What makes this collection of books and periodicals of particular interest is its fast-growing collection of Bengali-language publications. Books in Bengali on the modern social transformations of Bangladesh and West Bengal are generally not available in European libraries, and the IISH Library is becoming a prime resource.
In making this material available for the public, we faced the problem of transliteration. Bengali, one of the world's major languages (it stands sixth in terms of number of speakers and has a long and distinguished literature), has its own script. There is no standardised way of transcribing this into the Latin alphabet. After consulting with specialists, we have opted for a transliteration which is as close as possible to the way words are pronounced (rather than the traditional transliteration based on classical Sanskrit which cannot reproduce modern Bengali pronunciations). For examples, you can browse the online catalogue. You will find books and brochures under the collection name 'Bangladesh'.Text: Willem van Schendel