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Working Paper

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This paper argues that looking solely for the immediate causes of reproductive change may fail to take into account not only the impact of policies and programs but the societal decision to adopt these policies and programs to begin with. The paper examines the historical origins and spread of ‘modern’ ideas in Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India. It concludes that a colonial history in which education and modernization processes took hold very early among the elite in the larger Bengal region was paradoxically accompanied by a strong allegiance to the Bengali language. This strong sense of language identity has promoted secularism because language has competed with religious and other sectarian identities. It has also facilitated and reinforced the diffusion of modern ideas both within and between the two Bengali speaking regions. Thus, to understand the fertility decline in Bangladesh for example, one needs to also look at cultural boundaries. In this case, the cultural commonality through language facilitates the spread of new ideas across the two Bengals; and the political and religious separation between them increases the heterogeneity and newness of the ideas thus spread. In turn, the strong sense of language identity has facilitated mass mobilization more easily and intensely within the two Bengals. Through both these processes, Bangladesh and West Bengal today are more “modern” and more amenable to social change than many other parts of South Asia and the Middle East.