Manav Kapur (Princeton University)

The National Archives of Bangladesh

The National Archives of Bangladesh (NAB), located in Agargaon, Dhaka, has a wealth of information of interest to researchers of colonial and post-colonial Bengal. Some of the earliest documentation revenue records of the East India Company to information about Zamindari families-- especially the Bhowal family and the Nawab of Dhaka’s family,  from the late 18th century onwards. Both these Zamindaris were the largest estates of Bengal, earning over Rs 4,00,000 in rental income in the early 1900s. Additionally, both families are of interest to historians unconnected with economics. The Dhaka Nawab’s family was involved in Bengali Muslim politics from the earliest years of the twentieth century, including the founding of the Muslim League in 1907. The sensational Bhawal Inheritance case, dealing with a twenty-five year long legal struggle involving the scion of the family returning from the dead to claim his inheritance has been the subject of theatre and films, in addition to Partha Chatterjee’s riveting book, A Princely Impostor?

While there is some duplication with material in Kolkata, the NAB is a treasure trove if a researcher has the time. A lot of the records are found in wooden bundles and have not been exhaustively catalogued so far, which means one can find some fascinating material. Much of the colonial documentation has come from public libraries in each district (including Sylhet, earlier in Assam) which is now not to be found even in India's National Library. The revenue and legislative files, which I consulted, provided important records of Zamindaris and agrarian practices in East Bengal.

Most post-independence federal government documentation is presumably located in Karachi. The BNA, however, has the holdings from the East Pakistan Secretariat, and the provincial ministries-- including the Legislative Assembly debates, and home and legislative records. For Indian researchers on Pakistan, the materials there-- through newspapers in English (Dawn) and Bangla (Doinik Bangla), gazettes, and government publications from the 1950s and 1960s are very helpful. Most of this information requires sifting through district files. However, since these collections have been transferred from district record rooms directly to the archives, many have still not been compiled.

The BNA’s staff are incredibly helpful and very efficient. Elias Miah, the Senior Archivist and Research Director, has been associated with the archive for over twenty years and is able to point researchers to material that might be useful to them. The staff is approachable and friendly, going out of its way to help researchers. Photos are allowed at a nominal charge of Rs. 2 per page, which researchers are required to self-report. This works better than photocopying. Given Dhaka's traffic, finding a place close to the archives is advisable.

May 2020