Bangladesh: Search For Identity

Bangladesh as a nation is still groping for her identity. Until the dust raised around the question of identity settles down our progress as a nation will never be free from frictions. Bangladesh is a homogeneous nation, in form as well as content, because of overwhelming linguistic and religious uniformity, yet the arena of Bangladesh politics is trapped in a deadly controversy over the nature of Bangladesh’s identity. Absence of unanimity about our identity is eating up the very vitals of our national life. As long as such disagreement keeps on polarizing the nation we shall indeed fail to make our presence felt in the comity of nations deserving respect and meaningful recognition. For all these reasons we need to comprehend the true nature of our identity.
Identity and Representation 

Historical past provides critical resources for the cognition of identity. Yet history cannot tell us “who we are” or “where we come from” in all its manifestations. Because, history is a process and it never reaches a blind alley. Given history’s own nature formed in a dynamic course, we are placed in a continuum, rather than an end state. Nowhere in the world have any people ever come to being rather than becoming. In the dialectics of being and becoming it is difficult to determine which side of this contradiction is dominant. Sometimes, being is more important than becoming and sometimes, becoming overwhelms being, “so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves”. (Hasan, 1998). Identities are formed within representations, and not outside. All sets of people bound by a common feeling of belonging produced in specific historical and institutional sites ‘within specific discursive formations and practices’ struggles to create a representation of their own in the form sovereignty over political boundary, cultural forms and symbols differentiating them from other peoples. Since historical and institutional sites are continuously evolving it may not be surprising to see changes in political boundaries. History is replete with such examples, Bangladesh being no exception.

Change in political boundary is not undesirable per se, provided the people concerned consider this to be their desired representation. In this regard let me take the opportunity to narrate an anecdote. Few months after the independence of Bangladesh Moulana Bhasani started telling the people of Bangladesh that Bangladesh still remained incomplete as fourteen districts lay outside its political boundary. This was quite a courageous utterance on the part of the Moulana. I had the rare opportunity to confront Late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with the same question in a late November evening in 1972 at his office at Sugandha. He responded to my question saying that it was a ‘premature slogan’. Such a proposition can be considered once those districts freed themselves from the grip of Delhi. Even that was not enough. After they so disassociate from the Indian Union, he would give thought to the idea whether they could come to the fold of Bangladesh. This anecdote elucidates how representations are conceived in a given historical context. Mere linguistic homogeneity was not considered enough to vie for representation. Other matters like sovereignty and cultural symbolism were not to be ignored. For Moulana Bhasani the call for a greater Bangladesh was a strategy to preempt designs of the powerful neighbor to curtail Bangladesh’s sovereignty, whereas for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman it was his feeling that Bangladesh wants to remain within itself and has to be left alone. If the whole of Bangladesh nation could appreciate in one voice the essence of this anecdote then much of our anxiety over national consolidation and cohesion would have been over. With respect to the question of identity such an anxiety over the neighbor’s attitude brings to the fore the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. Samuel P. Huntington in his controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World order (p. 20) aptly presents this dichotomy quoting the voice of the Venetian nationalist demagogue in Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon : “There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.”
Plurality vs. uniqueness of identity
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist does not think in consonance with the intensity of feeling displayed by the Venetian nationalist. He thinks first that identities are robustly plural, and that ‘the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others. Second, a person has to make choices – explicitly or by implication – about what relative importance to attach, in a particular context, to the divergent loyalties and priorities that may compete for precedence.’ (Sen, 2006, p.19). Sen speaks of two types of reductionism with regard to identity – the first type being ‘identity disregard’ as in mainstream economics that considers the relationship of the individual only with himself and no other social being, and the second type is the ‘singular affiliation view’, which assumes that ‘any person preeminently belongs, for all practical purposes, to one collectivity only – no more and no less.’ (Sen, 2006, p. 20). As each of us belongs to many collectivities it could be argued that despite the plurality of groups to which any person belongs, ‘there is, in every situation, some one group that is naturally the preeminent collectivity for her, and she can have no choice in deciding on the relative importance of her different membership categories.’ (Sen, 2006, p. 25). However, Sen holds an exception to this view as it cannot be easily vindicated. He emphasizes the importance of choice in matters of deciding about identity given its plurality. He comes to the conclusion: ‘Indeed the need for reasoning is thoroughly pervasive at every stage of identity-based thoughts and decisions.’ (Sen, 2006, p. 32).

My point of view is that reasoning is not all pervasive at every stage of our identity based thinking as Sen argues. Man is a rational as well as an emotional being. In historical circumstances there had been occasions when emotive feelings far outweighed reasoning, and in the long run, emotive decisions produced good material outcomes. The people of Bangladesh chose to be a part of Pakistan in 1947. Important Bangladeshi national leaders like H. S. Suhrawardy, A. K. Fazlul Huq, Moulana Bhasani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman identified themselves with the Pakistan movement unhesitatingly. Kamal (2009, p. 11) describes the jubilation among the masses of East Pakistan: after the creation of Pakistan: “At midnight of 14 August 1947, the eastern part of the Indian province of Bengal was partitioned and became what was known as East Pakistan. Muslims all over East Bengal welcomed the birth of the new nation with the Azan (call to prayer). Tajuddin Ahmed, a young Muslim nationalist during the late 40’s, mentioned in his diary that people all over the Muslim areas of Dhaka, which earned for itself the distinction of being the provincial capital of East Pakistan, were found busy, day and night in erecting gates and decorating the city for Independence Day celebrations. Public and private buildings were illuminated at night and fireworks dazzled the sky. Crowds of ‘holiday makers’ thronged the streets, some riding trucks and some even on elephants.’ The highlight of the day, according to a Statesman report, was a procession by Hindus and Muslims, which converged on Victoria Park, where speeches were made by leaders of all important political parties.”

It did not take much time for these leaders and the masses in general to become disenchanted about Pakistan state. Powerful emotions were generated around the question of language, cultural ethos and economic justice. Emotive feelings played a very significant role in the political process that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Bangladeshis traversed a long way being solely driven by the power of emotion. In the ultimate analysis the creation of Bangladesh appears to be a reasoned choice. Bangladeshis despite remaining much behind the expected level of achievement are now much better off. We now discover that creation of Bangladesh has been a reasoned choice. On the other hand, the people of West Bengal, though Bengalis by linguistic and cultural identity chose to be part of the Indian Union in 1947 as that would provide them opportunities to exploit vast potentials of the Indian job market. Nor did they resist imposition of Hindi as the state language of India as such an attempt might jeopardize their material interest. Is it not surprising that the part of Bengal that contributed immensely to the growth and development of Bengali language did not feel the urge to place this language on a position of dignity and honor? On the contrary, Bengali youths from the banks of the Padma, the Meghna and the Jamuna possessing no rich wealth of Bangla language and literature amongst themselves felt a very deep love and attachment to this language and did not hesitate to shed blood for it. These divergences in the behavior of collectivities cannot be explained by reasoned choice alone. Mentality formation process plays a much deeper role in this regard. If we delve deeper into the history of mentalities of the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal we might be coming up with more revealing evidences regarding their current political boundary. That is why history of mentality occupies important place in modern historiography. (See for further discussion, Ullah, 2003).

Sen concedes that ‘all identities need not have durable importance. Indeed, sometimes an identity group may have a very fleeting and highly contingent existence.’ In the context of this paper we are concerned about identities of durable importance, not an ephemeral one. National identity occupies preeminent position in the assertion of identity. Therefore, political categories like nations and nationalism are given overwhelming importance in discussion on identity. Our knowledge of civilization reveals that throughout history human groupings have been formed that distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’. Writings from the Sumerian civilization (2500 BCE) record the belief that the ‘brothers of the sons of Sumer’, those of Sumerian ‘seed’ were distinguishable from the foreigners. Egyptians of 16th century BCE thought of them to be different from the ‘Asiatics’ to their east and the Nubians to their south. (Grosby, 2005). However, identity formation on the basis of polarity between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can be as old as the Egyptians and Sumerians and can be of recent history tracing the origin in colonial rule. Even as late as the 21st century we see human groups differentiating between one another and considering the other group as opponents. Chechens and Ukrainians consider themselves to be different from the Russians; Kurds distinguish themselves from both Iraqis and Turks; Slovaks and Czechs have separated, forming distinct national states; Kashmir is considered by some not to be part of India; and so on.

To appreciate the concept of ‘nation’ it is not enough that distinctions between human groups be understood; it is also necessary to understand how humanity unifies. This unifying tendency involves both in-group and between group cohesiveness. Nations and federation of nations forming political entities as states have friends as well as foes. In the ultimate analysis, states do not have permanent friends and foes; they have only permanent interest. Nations and nationalisms are not synonymous. Nationalism refers to a set of belief about the nation. It is a political project. Every nation contains different and competing beliefs about it that find manifestation in political contestation. The Bangladeshi nation despite its overwhelming homogeneity in language and religion is rife with political contestations that even do not exclude the nature and character of its nationhood. In India, on one side of the political spectrum there is a belief that this is a land of the Hindus and the Muslims are just like adopted sons. On the other side of the political spectrum lip service is given to secularism meaning Hindus, Muslims, Shikhs and Christians enjoy equal political rights.

During the anti-colonial struggle this side dominated the political scene. Had their faith in their professed political ideology been genuine why it was necessary to partition India at all? There is now a plethora of literature on India’s partition that has laid bare the responsibility of the contending parties. Jaswant Singh (2009), a Hindu nationalist leader of India didn’t find enough ground to blame Jinnah for the partition of India in his best seller book, Jinnah: India-Partition Independence. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph told him, ‘The Lucknow pact, a kind of constitution for India, recognized two nations and one state, what might be called a multi-national state that encompasses multiple sovereignties and, implicitly, a dynamic bargaining relationship among them’ (Singh, 2009, p. 519). While making his own observation he says, ‘was Jinnah’s subsequent bargaining strategy an attempt to maintain the goal of independence from British rule but with this independence vested in a multi-national Indian state capable of sharing sovereignty. It is these terms and conditions for sharing that were negotiated and renegotiated between 1916 and 1947 in a triangular bargaining among the British Raj, the Congress with the Muslim League. Jinnah at the time of Nehru Report (1928) tried for a third of the seats in the Central legislature, and may have been willing to settle for a quarter of them if only he could get two more Muslim majority provinces (Sindh and Baluchistan). During the end game of 1946, the Cabinet Mission plan he accepted ‘the multi-layered federal scheme (which included the congress ruled NWFP grouped with Punjab in Part A and Assam grouped with Bengal in Part B), both of which Nehru could not swallow, and an interim government with 6 Congress, 6 ML, one Sikh and 1 Depressed classes ministers’. (Singh, 2009, p.519).
Shared memory, identity and the nation
Nation is a kind of spirit that develops over a historical period. It will be a futile exercise to find out exact moment in history when a nation is born. All nations have historical antecedents either in the form of tribe, city state or kingdom. These are important constituents in the formation of nations. To give an example, the English nation emerged out of historically earlier societies of the Saxons, Angles, and Normans. Past historical facts by themselves do not make nations. The most critical element in the existence and persistence of nations is the element of shared memories about the historical past among the members of the nation. The education system, curriculum and syllabus play a very crucial role in transmitting these memories across generations. A serious fault of our education system is that history as a subject is being criminally neglected in the Bangladeshi schooling system. Whatever history is presented before the learners are only fragments of history without coherence.

The authors of history text books find it expedient to blow up certain aspects beyond proportion while neglecting others. Biased presentation of history distorts the understanding of the nation to the peril of national disorientation. How unfortunate we are as a nation! A number of examples can be cited that vindicate the importance of memory in nation formation. There had been no nation of England had there not been memories about the Saxon King Alfred (849-899 CE) and the good old law. Likewise, memories about the Piasts (10th – 12th century CE) and their kingdom were components in the emergence of Poland as a nation. The origin of Japanese nation can be traced back to Yamato Kingdom (4th - 7th century CE), with its worship of the sun goddess Amaterasu at Ise. The events described by such memories may not be factually correct, but they produce deep imprints on the minds of successive generations to keep the spirit of pride and glory handed down by their forefathers alive. Aleya and Golam Hossain are two imaginary characters in the drama on Serajuddoula tragedy directed by Sachindranath Sengupta for gramophone recording.

The imaginary characters enhanced the power of message of the drama manifold and added momentum to our anti-colonial struggle. In contemporary Bangladesh there is no attempt to re-circulate this drama! How many of us know that high caste Hindu intellectuals, writers and poets of Bengal gloated over the fall of Muslim power and expressed satisfaction over the establishment of British Raj in the 18th century? Do we tell our sons and daughters about the misfortune that engulfed the Muslim community among whom “A hundred and seventy ago it was almost impossible for a well-born Musalman in Bengal to become poor; at present it is almost impossible for him to continue rich”, (Hunter, Bangladesh reprint, 1999, p. 141) that is after the establishment of East India Company’s rule? The centenary of partition of Bengal in 1905 was celebrated with all seriousness in West Bengal in 2005 keeping in view the Indian perception. The occasion was marked by intellectual gatherings, seminars and publication of books and journals. What have we done in Bangladesh? Isn’t the partition of Bengal in 1905 is an important milestone that led to the creation of Bangladesh? The establishment of the University of Dhaka hugely contributed to the emergence of Bengali Muslim middle class in this part of the subcontinent. This middle class had been the torch bearer of the Pakistan movement and later on the Bangladesh movement. How many teachers and students of the University of Dhaka are acquainted with the history of the University of Dhaka? The University of Dhaka could be established after overcoming protracted resistance from the bhadralok intellectuals based in Kolkata. How many graduates of the University of Dhaka are in the know of the fact that it was ridiculed successively as ‘Makka University’, ‘Fakka University’ and ‘Dhakka University’ (a remark supposed to have been made by Harprasad Shastri, see Dutta, 1988, p. 55). Our school history text books give passing reference to Chhiyattarer Mannantar and Tetallisher Mannantar without an analysis of their causes and their impact on our society. The memory of Great Bengal Famines did have a tremendous impact on our national psyche. Why do we feel shy to admit that the Lahore Resolution of 1940 was moved by one of our great leaders A. K. Fazlul Huq, the tiger of Bengal? Didn’t this resolution contain the words, ‘independent and sovereign states’ that provided moral justification to the demand for autonomy of East Pakistan? What was the weight of struggle of the Bengali Muslims in the struggle for Pakistan compared with West Pakistani Muslims, who were in the spell of Unionists in the Punjab and Congress in the NWFP?

The vanguard role of the Bengali Muslims in the creation of Pakistan also provided them the moral strength to negate Pakistan. In the Indian historiography an oft repeated clich√© is ‘Muslim separatism’. Unfortunately, we haven’t made any effort to expose Hindu exclusivism. If Muslim separatism is bad, then Hindu exclusivism is equally bad. Do we try to remember who were responsible for the annulment of Bengal Pact signed between the representatives of the Muslim and Hindu community piloted by C. R. Das at the provincial conference of Congress at Serajganj in 1923? The pact provided for representation in the legislative assemblies on the basis of relative strength of the Muslim population. The pact awarded that the Muslims would get 55% of the government jobs. It was also decided that no musical procession would be taken out before the mosques and no cow-slaughter would take place in sensitive spots. C. R. Das died on 16th June, 1935. Such a beautiful pact of understanding and harmony between the Muslim and Hindu community was annulled at the provincial conference of Congress held at Krishnanagar in May, 1926 due to machinations of the pro-terrorist wing of the Congress. (see Sasmal, 1991 for details). These questions are not raised around telltales. These are facts of history. These facts along with denigration of Bengali Muslim leadership by the Punjabi and Muhajir leadership of Pakistan and denial of cultural and economic rights of the people of East Pakistan led to the movement for independence of Bangladesh. Our constitution defines the territory of Bangladesh as the territory that constituted East Pakistan on the night of 25th March, 1971. This definition of our territory clearly establishes the fact that our identity as a nation has been determined by the nature of our anti-British struggle, the Hindu-Muslim divide during the colonial period and the Muslim-Muslim divide under Pakistani rule; however undesirable the latter two may be.
Individual interest, patriotism and the nation
At this stage, we would like to devote a few paragraphs on the question of nation. The following paragraphs on the theory of nation will help us to appreciate the formation of Bangladesh as a nation. Living in the same geographical area or speaking a common language produces ‘collective consciousness’ among a group of people. Possessing ‘collective consciousness’ is not enough for making a nation. If the group of people so constituted do not understand themselves different from others, then it does not produce ‘collective self-consciousness’ and, therefore, not a nation. ‘However, the nation is formed around shared traditions that are not merely about a distinctive past, but a spatially situated past.’ (Grosby, 2005, p.10) This means there is an element of territoriality here. The people which makes a nation is to be found in a territorial location where they existed over time sharing common tradition. The nation is thus a territorial relation of collective self-consciousness of actual and imagined duration. Enduringly binding relations among the members of the nation sometimes blinded the vision of some philosophers about within nation conflicts. This is a romantic view of a nation. Johann Gottfried von Herder (18th century) and Johan Gottlieb Fichte (19th century) suffered from such illusions. Not to speak of the bigger entity like the nation, there may arise conflicts within a family.

As opposed to the romantic view of a nation, the actions of the members of a nation involve divergent and even conflicting goals. Adam Smith in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) aptly describes contradictory pursuits of the members of a nation when he observed:

There is many an honest Englishman, who, in his private station, would be more seriously disturbed by the loss of a guinea, then by the national loss of Minorca, who yet, had it been in his power to defend that fortress, would have sacrificed his life a thousand times rather than, through his fault, have let it fall into the hands of the enemy.

Human beings combine urges for protecting self-interest as well as for self-sacrifice. Patriotic urges emanate from various types of attachment with the nation among its members. One may, for example, be loyal to one’s nation because of its laws, or its customs, or its religion, or its language. These loyalties are rooted in differing affiliations, but these differences do not deter individuals from forging solidarity with his or her fellow national in moments of crisis, especially when decisions are to be taken regarding ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is patriotism. Patriotism does not exclude different pursuits by the members of the nation. It need not even reject different conceptions of nation held by the members of the nation. Patriotism implies only commitment to the well-being of one’s country. A Bengali poet writes about the intensity of patriotic feeling as follows:

Patriotism provides the basis for working out the differences, involving reasoned compromise. The process of finding compromise solution is a matter of politics. An acute problem that grips the Bangladeshi nation is failure to work out compromises on national issues. When concern for national well-being reigns supreme, working out compromises is not difficult. In such situation norms of civility guide the course of action.

Ernest Renan in his definition of nation says, “A nation is a grand solidarity constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again. It supposes a past, it renews itself especially in the present by a tangible deed: the approval, the desire, clearly expressed, to continue the communal life. The existence of a nation (pardon this metaphor!) is an everyday plebiscite; it is like the very existence of the individual, a perpetual affirmation of life.” (Hutchinson & Smith, 1994). Ernest Renan considered nation as a moral entity. To him its state form is soulless without its moral content. Nation represents a solidarity that continues through the bond of historical consciousness. The nation, he declares is ‘a daily plebiscite’. The positive aspect of Bangladesh nation is that it made sacrifices in the historical past that had resulted in the formation of a state. But those sacrifices were made for differing ends. At one stage of history religious identity (purportedly not for religion per se) was evoked for national self determination, and at another juncture of history linguistic and ethnic identity was evoked for national mobilization. I have termed this phenomenon about our nation as ‘pendulum like swing’ in one of my earlier writings. (Ullah, 2003). There was nothing abnormal about these swings and the swings themselves were caused by concrete historical conditions. Unfortunately, this has created a split consciousness and the national leadership failed to produce a sustained blending of the two. Both Late President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Late President Ziaur Rahman made attempts to bring a harmonization between the two divergent trends, but they did not have enough time to materialize their intentions. We shall address this point at a latter stage. Renan’s famous phrase ‘everyday plebiscite’ regarding nation to continue the communal life is not working in Bangladesh due to absence of politics of compromise. This is a serious weakness of Bangladesh as a nation.

Joseph Stalin’s writing on The Nation provides us an understanding why the Bangla speaking peoples in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura do not form a nation. Stalin writes, “Thus, a common language is one of the characteristic features of a nation. This, of course, does not mean that different nations always and everywhere speak different languages, or that all who speak one language necessarily constitute one nation. A common language for every nation, but not necessarily different languages for different nations!

There is no nation which at one end and the same time speaks several languages, but this does not mean that there cannot be two nations speaking the same language! Englishmen and Americans speak one language, but they do not constitute one nation. The same is true of the Norwegians and the Danes, the English and the Irish.”(In Hutchinson & Smith, 1994, p.19). According to Stalin speaking one language may not make a nation, because of territorial difference, absence of an internal economic bond to weld the various parts of the nation into a single whole and specific spiritual complexion of the people. Stalin further asserts, “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in common culture.” (In Hutchinson & Smith, 1994, p. 20).

In all these counts all Bangla speaking peoples cannot make a composite nation. So, the concept of Bangali nationalism is a misnomer. According to Max Weber (in Hutchinson & Smith, 1994) commitment to a political project distinguishes the nation. All Bangla speaking peoples do not have unified commitment to a political project. It is as simple as that.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (in Hutchinson & Smith, 1994) views a nation to contain two complementary, yet conflicting components – ethnic and civic - in the nationalisms of post-colonial states. The ethnic aspect is manifested in ‘primordial’ loyalties, while the civic as a desire for citizenship in a modern state. The Bangla speaking peoples may have a common primordial loyalty, but there is nothing common about their desire for citizenship in one modern state. To Anthony Giddens (in Hutchinson & Smith, 1994) nation is a ‘bordered power container’.

Bangladesh is a self contained ‘bordered power container’. Bangladeshi people abhor exercise of the power to perpetrate violence within its borders by any extra-territorial power, though such perpetration of violence by an extra-territorial power occurs frequently, for example, killing of Bangladeshi citizens by the Indian Border Security Force.
Hindu bhadralok intellectuals and British rule
The Bengali intellectuals of 18th century, who loved to be identified as ‘bhadralok’ were the creation of British rule and were dependent upon them. Opposing British rule was beyond the pale of their imagination. It is true that a sense of self-respect arose in their minds vis-√†-vis their relation with the rulers and due to this urge they wanted to transform them into a nation, but in their wildest imagination they could not think of being rulers of their country. Ranajit Guha used a much harsher language on their attitude. Guha described it as an aspiration of the servant for self-status to be conceded by the master. (cited by Anuradha Roy). We are citing in this section a few extracts from the vast number of writings of the bhadralok intellectuals of 18th century that reflects exuberant appreciation of the British rulers.

Death of Queen Victoria in 1901 provided an opportunity to the bhadralok intelligentsia to express gratitude and indebtedness to British rule. Large number of poems, songs and dramas were written on this occasion eulogizing British rule. Amrita Lal wrote in the drama Victoria Bilap:

Otherwise known to be a nationalist poet Ishwar Chandra Gupta wrote:

The safest language of expressing aspiration for independence was to narrate the story of heroic resistance of Hindus against Muslim aggression. Historians termed this as vicarious nationalism. Since the Hindu bhadraloks could not dare to utter a word against the British rulers the Muslims were made whipping boys. But, in fact it was worse than vicarious nationalism. The ‘Hindu nationalist’ of the 19th century did consider the Muslims to be foreign aggressors. Rangalal Bandopaddhaya wrote Padmini Upakkhan. In this writing one can find a powerful expression against foreign rule:

The poet did not compose this keeping British rule in his mind. He wrote this in the context of battle of the Rajputs of Chetore against the Javans. The poet wrote in the preface to the Upakkhan:

It is quite clear that Nabin Chandra considered arrival of the Muslims in India as the beginning of foreign subjugation. In other writings he welcomed the British for rescuing India from Javan rule.

The famous Hindu Mela was initiated as a vehicle for Hindu cultural revival. The proponents of the Mela declared that their objectives were practice of Hindu physical exercise, Hindu music, Hindu healing and learning Sanskrit and Bangla. Giving up harmful habits of drinking wine and popularizing Hindu manners like Namashkar were also part of the program of Hindu Mela. The mind set and cultural practice of the Hindu Bhadraloks only contributed to the sharpening of the Hindu-Muslim divide that culminated into partition of India and partition of Bengal. The Muslim community felt totally frustrated due to neglect of the British rulers and felt so much alienated that they took up arms against the British rule under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Brelvi. When the Hindus were collaborating with the British rule due to their apathy for centuries of Muslim rule, Muslims thought it their sacred duty to fight alien rule. The British rulers took advantage of the situation to create further wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus. ‘Divide and Rule’ became the dictum of the British rulers. Bishop Heber wrote in his Narrative:

It is desirable that the Hindoos should always be reminded that we did not conquer them, but found them conquered, that their previous rulers were as much strangers to their blood and to their religion as we are, and that they were notoriously far more oppressive masters than we have ever shown ourselves. (Cited by Waseem, 2003).

De Tassey, a French scholar published in Journal asiatique in 1845 the Devnagri original of a handbill, circulated by the then Governor-General of India regarding the doors of Somnath temple, which were supposed to have been taken away by Sultan Mahmud, after he had demolished the temple. Scholar S. Waseem quoted the whole text of the handbill in the introduction to the book, On Becoming an Indian Muslim (2003), ‘ because this very cleverly drafted piece was perhaps, earliest example of the slogan, Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan, launched by the English government.’ Moreover, the Afghan War could have been seen as a Holy War with Hindus and the British on one side and Afghans and Indian Muslim Wahabis on the other. The Quranic verses inscribed in kufi style on the door found by the government engineers sheds doubt on the authenticity of the door to be that of Somnath temple. The Governor General wrote in the handbill:

   “From the Nawab Governor-General to the People
   (Raja Praja) of Hindustan
   Brothers and Friends (bhaiyo aur mitro),

Our victorious army is bringing triumphantly (dhoom dham se) the door (kiwar) of Somnath temple from the Afghan country and from the demolished (ung bhung) tomb (makraba) of Sultan Mahmud can be seen Ghazni in ruins. The humiliation (hatak) of 800 years has now been avenged. The doors of Somnath temple, which for such a long time reminded you of your subjugation (adhinata), will now be a glorious (pratapwan) sign of the power and glory (samarthya aur prakash) of your country (desh). They will always be a constant reminder of the superiority of your arms over those who live beyond the Indus (sindhu paar walon).”

The full text of the handbill is much bigger. It is crystal clear from the above excerpt how the British rulers appealed to the Hindu ego. These historical facts contributed to Hindu exclusivism in India and destroyed all chances for development of composite Indian patriotism.
Partition of Bengal (1905)
Every nation is engaged in a continuous process of quest for identity. In the course of the development of history nations discover their identity through a process of their historical experience. The emergence of the nation state of Bangladesh is no historical accident. It has a long historical background. Partition of Bengal in 1905 is an important mile stone in this long course of history.

Partition of Bengal (1905) has been scrutinized by the historians and politicians having different perspectives. The British rulers wanted to emphasize the point that that partition of Bengal was unavoidable due to administrative exigencies. Nationalist historians viewed it as a part of the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the rulers. According to this view the partition of Bengal paved the way for communal divide. On the other hand, Bengali Muslims saw it as an opportunity for their uplift as they were lagging far behind their Hindu brethren in terms of education, political consciousness and overall economic progress. They thought this new administrative arrangement had opened up opportunities for the redress of injustice that befell them. The modern educated elite that we see today in Bangladesh is a byproduct of that momentous decision. The decision to partition Bengal was not accepted happily by the Kolkata based Hindu bhadraloks. They saw it as the beginning of loss of their hegemony over the downtrodden peasantry of Eastern Bengal. This bunch of clever and crafty group of people occupying the upper crust of the society raised the bogey that the limbs of the mother’s body are being amputated to hide their evil motive. However, they could not hide their vile appearance ultimately as they insisted on the partition of Bengal in 1947.

In 1902, Viceroy Lord Curzon opined, ‘Bengal is ungovernably too large a charge for a single man’. On the basis of this opinion of Lord Curzon, it is thought that Curzon was instrumental in the partition of Bengal. However, the point of view of the British rulers was not be ruled out. Bengal presidency constituted of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, Chhota Nagpur and its hilly terrains and a few tribute paying states. At the end of 19th century its area was 1,89,000 square miles and the population were nearly 80 million.

 Lord Curzon forwarded the proposal for partition of Bengal on February 2, 1905 to White Hall. White Hall approved the proposal on June 9, 1905. On the 16th October partition of Bengal became effective. The timing of Bengal partition was politically inexpedient. At that time so-called revolutionary ideas were being spread. Swami Vivekananda mixed up nationalism with Hindu revivalism. Anti-Bengal partition propaganda succeeded in creating deep appeal to the Hindu mentality. Partition of Bengal was equated with the vilest sin of amputating the limbs of the mother, goddess Durga, who symbolized the nation. Appeals were made to give up the use of foreign products. Swadeshi movement was ignited. Hundreds of secret societies emerged. A summary of protest events that followed the decision to partition Bengal is given as follows:

Gopal Krishna Gokhale told the Congress conference in December 1905, “A cruel wrong has been inflicted on our Bengali brethren and the whole country has been stirred to the deepest depth with sorrow and resentment as has never been the case before.”

Aravinda Ghosh returned to Kolkata in 1906 and initiated a militant terrorist movement in Irish style and published an English newspaper named Bande Mataram, which propagated the cult of terrorism.

At one stage the British government imposed ban on Bandemataram slogan, but it had to be withdrawn because of the severity of protest.

The British government declared partition of Bengal as a settled fact. A huge protest rally was held in Kolkata in protest against the declaration of the British rulers, which was followed by widespread labor unrest and work stoppages.

There was an assassination attempt on magistrate Kingsford at Mozaffarpur, but he was unhurt.

Khudiaram Basu was sentenced to death for attempting assassination of magistrate Kingsford and Basu became a political martyr. Students started wearing dhutis with borders marked with the name of Khudiram. Government failed to stampt out waves of political murders.

Partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911. Although the extremist faction of the Congress is blamed for all what had happened, the liberal faction of the Congress was also sympathetic to the cause of the protesters.

Partition of Bengal was formally announced on 16th October, 1905. The day was observed as ‘Mourning Day’ under the leadership of the Hindu Bhadraloks. The foundation stone of the Federal Hall was laid at Kolkata on this day and later on assemblies in protest against partition of Bengal were held in this hall. The main leaders of the movement against partition of Bengal was Surendra Nath Bandopaddhaya, Rabindranath Thakur, Satish Chandra Mukhopaddhaya, Motilal Ghosh, Ananda Mohan Basu, Ramesh Chandra Dutta, Bipin Chandra Pal, Ashwini Kumar Dutta, Ambika Charan Majumdar and A. K. Mitra. Main organizations that were behind this movement were Dawn Society, Bandemataram Sampradaya, Anti-circular Society and Swadeshi Samaj.

One need not lengthen the story of reaction against the partition of Bengal. We have seen the reaction of the Hindu community. We just mention one example of the reaction of Bangali Muslim community regarding the partition of Bengal. Syed Nawab Ali Choudhury raised a very strong resolution to support partition of Bengal at the All India Muslim League Conference held at Amritasar on 30-31 December, 1908. The resolution was unanimously passed. Syed Nawab Ali Choudhury said, “…The duplication of the administrative machinery has not only raised the standard of efficiency in the government of the reconstituted province, but has afforded a great security of life and prosperity to the people. What was the state of affairs in the eastern part of the province, especially in the tracts watered by the Brahmaputra, the Pudda and the Meghna. They were so detouched and segregated from the centre of administrative influence that it was impossible, under the old system, to have hoped for any improvement, social, political, educational or commercial, before many long years to come. The partition has given a new life to the people in the Eastern province. They are feeling a refreshing sense and a relief from the thralldom of… Calcutta. They find their rights more quickly recognized and their existence and importance more adequately appreciated than they could as a mere appendage, as heretofore, of Western Bengal. They find that if…some 100 deputy magistrates and a like number of sub-deputies, munsiffs and sub-registrars have had to be appointed, these appointments went to the children of the soil, Hindus and Mohammedans. In fact, the people feel that in neglected Eastern Bengal, the people have got what Ireland has so strenuously been fighting for, I mean home-rule and not rule from Calcutta.”

Poet Rabindranath Thakur played a very prominent role in the movement against partition of Bangal. He composed many patriotic songs including the one that has been adopted as the National Anthem of Bangladesh, to arouse people against the partition. He painfully came to a realization that the Muslim masses of Bengal were reluctant to be in solidarity with the movement, rather they preferred to stay aloof. He made intense retrospection on the matter and made a few profound observations.

Many Hindu Bhadralok leaders thought that the British rulers were instigating the Muslim masses against their movement against partition of Bengal. As early as in 1907 Tagore wrote in his essay Byadhi O Pratikar,

Tagore realized that there were big distances between the bhadraloks and the chashas (peasants). These could not be removed by sweet words alone. Most of the rural peasants were Muslims. He further wrote in the above essay,

In those days Hindu Zamindars, social heads and even the common Hindus used to maintain social distance from the Muslim tenants. It was a far cry to expect the support of the Muslims against the movement for annulment of Bengal partition and for the Swadeshi movement. Tagore in his usual style in a write up on Swami Sraddhananda in Prabashi (Magh, 1333) gave an explanation of this psychological distance. He wrote,

Plan of united Bengal 

The movement that was built up to partition Bengal immediately before the independence of India was opposed by only a handful of Hindu leaders. Sharat Bose and few others tried to resist this wave. Sharat Bose resigned from the Congress Working Committee in January, 1946. In March 1947 the Congress Working Committee stood in favor of partitioning the Punjab and Bengal. Sharat Bose protested this move in a statement issued through Amrita Bazar Patrika on March 15, 1947. He felt that partitioning the provinces on a communal basis was no solution to the communal problem. However, within a week it became clear that nobody in Bengal Congress was ready to support Bose. In 1947 Sharat Bose prepared a plan to keep Bengal united. His plan included joint election, adult franchise and distribution of assembly seats on the basis of population. The plan also provided for equal number of Hindu and Muslim ministers in Bengal cabinet, the prime minister would be a Muslim, the home minister would be a Hindu and Hindus and Muslims would get equal share in the government jobs. The Independent Bengal would be a socialist republic. Bose was supported by Suhrawrdy and Abul Hashim. Gandhi gave conditional support to this plan. However, Gandhi himself had admitted that the Congress Working Committee reprimanded him for his stance.

Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Ballavbhai Patel took a very tough stand against Independent United Bengal plan. Patel told the Bengali Hindus, “Bengal cannot be isolated from the Indian Union. Talk of a Sovereign Republic of Independent Bengal is a trap to induce the unwary and unwise to enter the parlour of the Muslim League. The Congress working committee is fully aware of the situation in Bengal, and you need not be afraid at all. Bengal has got to be partitioned, if the non-Muslim population is to survive” (cited in Chatterji, 1995).. In a letter to Ashrafuddin Choudhury, J. B. Kripalani wrote, “All that the Congress seeks to do today is to rescue as many as possible from the threatened domination of the League and Pakistan. It wants to save as much territory for a free Indian Union as possible under the circumstances. It therefore insists upon the division of Bengal and Punjab…I do not see what else the Congress can do under the circumstances.” (cited in Chatterji, 1995). Bengal was partitioned in 1947 to pave the way for the creation of East Bengal to be a province of Pakistan. Within a span of 42 years after partition of Bengal in 1905 the hypocrisy of the Hindu Bhadralok leaders got fully exposed and Bengal was partitioned again in 1947. This was a matter of serious historical implication and had far reaching impact on the formation of the national identity of Bangladesh.
Identity of Bangladesh nation 
Identity of Bangladesh nation as it stands today among the common masses has been evolving over a course of one thousand years. Its formation can be traced in the composition of Charjyapad, the first written text in Bangla. Cultural transactions during Pala rule, Sena rule, oppression of the Buddhists by the Sena rulers, rule of Muslim Sultans and their patronage of Bangla literature, influence of Sufi tradition, spread of Islam in Bengal, Mughal rule, emergence of modern Bangla language around the Fort William College, development of Babu culture, development of Bangla language and literature by the Bhadraloks of Kolkata with an Indic bias, experience of colonial rule, peasant rebellion led by Titumir, Hajee Shariatullah and the Paugalpanthis, creation of Pakistan, curtailment of cultural freedom by the Pakistani rulers, Language movement, economic disparity between East and West Pakistan, the attempt by the Pakistani rulers to centralize power, the heroic war of liberation in 1971,(see for more details on evolution of state formation in Bengal: Ullah, 2008).

Muslimness as well as Bengaliness of the masses, the Sufi tradition, the urge for shaking off Brahministic hegemony and the political border that Bangladesh possesses determined by partition of Bengal in 1905, partition of India in 1947 and emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 – all of them together shaped Bangladesh’s identity historically. There may be confusions among the elites regarding the identity of Bangladesh that finds manifestation through the controversy on Bangali nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism, but there is no confusion among the masses over it.

Late President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his first speech at Suhrawardy Udyan after release from the captivity of Pakistan succinctly articulated our identity saying: “I am a human being, I am a Bangali and I am a Muslim. Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim state of the world.” J. N. Dixit in his book Liberation and Beyond-Indo Bangladesh Relation came to a realistic understanding on Mujib’s view of Bangladeshi identity. He had the rare opportunity to watch developments in Bangladesh as a highly placed Indian diplomat in Bangladesh immediately after independence in 1971. He wrote in the above book (p.223-224) “Mujib as the first head of government of Bangladesh was deeply imbued with a sense of Bangladesh’s identity as a distinct socio-ethnic and political force in the sub-continent. He was clear about the ethno-cultural separateness of East Bengal (He emphasized the difference between being a “Bangal” and a “Ghoti”). He was also clear in his mind that the national identity of the newly created Bangladesh can be sustained only if the Muslim identity of Bangladeshis forms a primary ingredient in “Bangladeshi nationalism”. This emphasis on the Islamic identity of Bangladesh was not underpinned by any religious extremism or fanaticism or hostility towards the minorities of Bangladesh. His underlining Islamic identity was devoid of the antagonisms which permeated Pakistan’s views towards India. In the initial months after the liberation of Bangladesh, he affirmed secularism as a doctrine of the new Bangladeshi constitution and politics. But he did not believe in a total separation of religion from politics. He was conscious of the importance of Islam as a cementing factor in the process of Bangladeshi national consolidation.”

The question that arises is, do the political followers of Mujib understand him in this light. Ziaur Rahman articulated the concept of ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’. The way Mujib understood different dimensions of Bangladeshi nationhood was not wide apart from Zia’s concept of ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’. While describing Mujib’s thinking on Bangladeshi identity Dixit did use the concept ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. The difference between the political circumstances faced by Zia and Mujib is that the former had to operate almost in a situation of siege by India. Zia had to be more open and aboveboard to overcome the situation of siege through creating new political allies and launching a new political party based on his ideals. He mobilized international allies to keep Bangladesh free from external interference. He also tried to popularize the practice of Muslim manners like Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, Assalamualaikum and Khuda Hafiz. But, he was also modern and forward looking. He enthusiastically encouraged the participation of women in the mainstream of social life. He got the documents of the liberation war compiled in fifteen volumes.

In the light of foregoing discussion it should not be difficult for Bangladeshis to decide ‘who they are’. But, the existing political cloud is so dark that we are in a state of confusion to determine ‘who we are’ and ‘who are against us’.

By - Mahbub Ullah.