How hilsa became the national fish

The government ban on hilsa fishing begins from 4 OctoberProthom Alo file photo

Monsoon has arrived late this year. The rainy season usually begins in June and ends in September, but it starts raining continuously from September. So it is too late to catch hilsa. Hilsa, or ilish, is costlier than any other fish in the country. Even so, it is difficult to find a Bengali who does not want to buy and eat the fish during the monsoon. Apart from being the national fish of the country, there is no end to the passion and enthusiasm of the people of this country about the fish.

According to the fisheries and livestock ministry, there are 735 species of fish in Bangladesh. But there is no clear explanation in government or non-government records or in history books as to why hilsa has been named the national fish. While studying the co-relation between Bangladesh’s seas, rivers, water bodies and fish, the issue of big rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Ganges flowing from the upstream will come up.

There is a geographical cause and effect that after originating from those two basins, thousands of small and big rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal. Alongside hilsa, Bangalees have also passion for chital, pangash and rui.

In search of the history as to why hilsa is selected as the national fish of the newly independent country in 1972, we spoke to the country's leading and senior fisheries experts who were in charge of administration and research in 1971 and 1972, many of whom have witnessed the selection of Bangladesh's national fish, fruits, flowers and animals in 1972. However, most of them could not give any single reason for selecting hilsa as the national fish. Because, historically, apart from hilsha, the fishes rui, katla, boal, koi, shrimps, poa, puti and tengra were also popular in the country's rivers. These people who were in important positions at that time had a common opinion -- the level of excitement and discussion about hilsha was not at the same level as in the sixties or seventies as is now. Hilsha was popular indeed, but there were fish with similar levels of popularity.

Even Mohammed Farashuddin, the personal assistant of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972 , was asked why hisha was picked as national fish among so much fishes. The economist, who later worked as governor of Bangladesh Bank, said it cannot be said hilsha took top spot in the list of Bangabandhu’s favourite fishes. During most of the time, Bangabandhu used to eat puti, tengra, mola and pabda. He seldom had hilsha.

But the close aide of Bangabandhu believes the taste of hilsha had been famous for centuries. It looks bright and found mostly in Bangladesh. This can be caught easily without cultivating. Bangabandhu might have taken these factors in consideration when selecting it as the national fish.

According to Farashuddin, food production of Bangladesh was in dire straits after liberation. There was an inadequate supply of food, just a meagre amount of rice and vegetables. Hilsa played a crucial role mitigating the demand of animal protein during that period. Huge amounts of hilsha was found in the rivers during 1972. Poor people of the villages used to catch and consume them. So, Bangabandhu selected this fish as the national fish.

Former vice-chancellor of Bangladesh Agriculture University, Abdul Wahab said, the factor which is taken under consideration while selecting national fish in most of the countries is whether that fish is abundant in that country. In that regard, the lion share of total hilsha in the world was found in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. Now, 85 percent of worlds’ hilsha is found in Bangladesh. The factor might play as a major logic in selecting hilsha as national fish and it was proved correct later. 

The beginning of hilsa popularity

In 1983, the practice of eating 'panta-ilish' (water-soaked rice and hilsa) started for the first time during the festival of Pahela Baishakh in Ramna Batamul. The beginning of the eighties was an important decade for the economy and social structure of Bangladesh. With the development of the readymade garment sector, overseas remittance and the development of domestic industries, the size of the middle class was also increasing. On the one hand, the memory of the village left by the ancestors and on the other hand, efforts are being made to rebuild the Bengali culture in the city. The grip of the global economy and the culture of globalisation were also growing.

During such a shift in the Dhaka city center, the celebration of Pahela Baishakh as a symbol of Bengali culture became an occasion for identity building of the emerging middle class. One morning in 1983, a group of youths set up a few makeshift stalls of panta-ilish in the open space of Ramana Batamul and Fine Arts Institute. The novel practice of combining middle-class village and urban culture continued to flourish in the following years. The trend of panta-ilish for the festival began to take place in the kitchens and living rooms of the middle class.

As the middle class started to shift towards hilsa, its demand soared. On the other hand, efforts are being made to build middle-class industries throughout the country. Hilsa is associated with the development of the urban middle class. The middle class has been developing since the early eighties until this year 2022. At the same time, their self-identity is undergoing destruction and rebuilding. In the eighties and early nineties, the economic base of the middle class was built by garment factories, small and medium industries and the expansion of shrimp farming, once known as white gold, along the coast. After the 90s, the middle class people became obsessed in the process of building a new democratic society. Electricity was reaching every house in the city, refrigerators appeared in the middle-class households with cash in hand. As a response to various influences of globalisation, consuming hilsa fish as an element of local culture, practicing Bengali folk music, celebrating Pahela Baishakh, Pahela Falgun, Ekushey February, Victory Day, and Independence Day became a symbol of Bangladeshi culture and self-identity.

However, the Bengali region, which was earlier called East Bengal, does not mention the practice of eating panta-ilish on the first Baisakh or celebrating with hilsa at other times of the year in the historical books, writings or literary music of that time. On the other hand, during this time i.e. March-April, it would have been difficult to procure food for the farmers in Bengal. That time of the year is the season of hilsa breeding. Then hilsha fishing is also a big obstacle in the way of breeding or increasing the number of that delicious fish. 

On the other hand the period from 80s to 2005 might be termed as the transitional period for hilsa of Bangladesh as on that era the production of hilsa in the country continuously dropped. The sprawl of factories and cities along the country's rivers was increasing pollution. And on the other hand, due to the influence of Farakka, the migration of hilsa through the Padma also stopped. On the one hand, the demand for hilsa as a cultural symbol is increasing and on the other, the number of hilsha is decreasing due to pollution and sedimentation in the river. In this situation, the price of hilsa increased rapidly. As hilsa became scarcer, the enthusiasm of the middle class also increased.

Partition and Bangal’s eulogy for hilsha

But the enthusiasm about hilsha had been persistent in West Bengal from 50s. After the partition in 1947 the films of West Bengal used to term West Bengal Bangalees and East Bengal Bangalees as Ghoti and Bangal respectively. The film ‘Sharey Chuattar’, released in 1953, showed the altercation between Ghati and Bangals over hilsha and prawns and the truth was revealed though it symbolically. And that is, the people who migrated from this homeland to West Bengal during partition also carried the memory of hilsha with them.

The memories of Bangals, who were brought up at the banks of the Padma in Rajshahi, Jashore, Khulna, Barishal, Chandpur and Bikrampur, were portrayed at the films, literature and poetry.

That was the reason, Buddhadeb Basu’s poem where hilsa was termed as “a bright grain of water” , was published at the Anandabazar Patrika and one after another write-ups of agonies composed by Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay were also published. These write-ups invigorated the memories of partition. Till date, the newspapers and television channels praise eulogise hilsa during monsoon.

Middle class economy and hilsa

Let's come back to the present. We must remember the various initiatives taken by the government after 2000 to protect hilsa. Since the 80s, the government has taken one initiative after another to protect hilsa, which has become culturally important. Initiatives like declaring a sanctuary for hilsa and protection of jatka (hilsa fry) began to bear fruit from 2010. Hilsa production in the country is increasing rapidly. At that time, people's income and electricity production in the country started to increase. Apart from Dhaka, electricity connection and number of refrigerators in big cities are increasing at the same pace. This perishable fish could easily be stored in the refrigerator.

The infrastructure such as the increase in the number of ice mills in the hilsa landing centers or ghats, and the creation of cold storage facilities for hilsa storage are rapidly expanding through the private sector. On the one hand, the expansion of infrastructure, on the other hand, the increase in people's income and good prices, the investment of fishermen and traders in hilsa increased. As a result, there is an increase in the tendency to go to the sea in big ships and boats to catch hilsa.

Between 2006 and 2022, the production of hilsa in the country reached from 200,000 tonnes to about 600,000 tonnes. In addition to the middle class of Dhaka city, the middle class of small towns, and even the rural middle class, hilsa is getting a place on the dining tables. In this way, hilsa, which appeared as a saviour to meet the needs of the poor people of the country in the beginning of the 70s, once became a luxury fish for the upper class. After 2015, the production of hilsa increased, the price also decreased and it came within the reach of the middle class. Hilsa, which has become a symbol of self-identity and an element of nationalistic pride for the people of Bangladesh, has truly become the national fish.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, managing director and economist of PPRC, has done several studies in this regard. He said, there is a relationship with the growth of Hilsa production in Bangladesh and the state policy as the government has declared many sanctuaries to protect this fish. At certain times of the year catching of mother and jatka fish is forbidden. And a social security net for fishermen is being built. As a result the number of hilsa increases in the country. Still, the price of the fish is yet to come at the reach of poor people. The reason is, from catching the fish to whole marketing system is captured by a syndicate. As a result the price of hilsa is not dropping despite all the initiatives. The price of this national fish will come within purchase limit of all if this syndicate can be disbanded.