Pohela Baishakh as a festival try to root us to the past, at the same time locate us in our future, although we are yet to grasp the broader dimension of such phenomenon. We have witnessed the unfolding of Pohela Baishakh as a celebration over the last half-century which was also a period of great changes in the national and global arena. In the then East Pakistan Pohela Baishakh was celebrated more as a trade-ritual or Hal-Khata, the opening of new account book by the traders. For the vast majority of peasants Chaitra denoted the settlement of annual land rent or Khajna and Baishakh was the beginning of new life of toil and hope. That hope in life was reflected in the festivities of Baishakh, the grameen melas with fanfare and joy. This was also an opportunity for the rural artisans and craftsmen to promote their products in the community market. Altogether Baishakh reflected the connectivity of people of the land with their past centering on rituals which forged the bondage of the community. The long colonial rule over Bengal loosened this bond between the urban and rural people. The Pakistani dominance over the Eastern part further eroded this link. Moreover the rituals of Bengali New Year was viewed by the Pakistani rulers as a challenge to their so-called Islamic values on which the Pakistani nationhood was constructed. This trend was reflected in the denial of Bengali language; attempt to purify the Bengali culture of alien influences, administrative steps to thwart the birth centenary celebration of Rabindranath Tagore, revising the text of Nazrul's poem to eradicate the 'Heathen' references and lot of other similar measures. Thus the political struggle to establish democratic national rights became a struggle to uphold and promote Bengali cultural rights also. In 1961 the urban educated class defied the dictum of martial law and turned the Tagore centenary celebration inspiring acts of literary musical theatrical performances. The new-found strength of cultural resistance was channelized in the establishment of Chhayanaut, a unique organisation to promote musical culture of Bengal. The secular liberal values rooted deep in tradition became a tool to promote Bengali national identity.
It is in this backdrop that Chhayanaut called for the celebration of Bengali New Year to forge the link with tradition overcoming rural-urban divide. The open-air concert held at early morning under the banyan tree of Ramna Garden electrified the nation. How a small act of collective artistic rendition can create deep impact in the psyche of the society had been aptly reflected in the events that followed. The Junta-appointed civil Governor of East Pakistan Abdul Monaem Khan understood the significance of such musical event very well and termed this as an act of Hindu ritual of Surja-bandana which cannot be allowed to be performed in Pakistan. On the other hand the songs of Tagore or Nazrul or of the Bauls created a new resonance in the hearts and minds of the people. 'Amra milechi aj mayer dak-e', 'We all are here at the call of our Mother', a song composed by Rabindranath Tagore in 1905 during the Swadeshi movement sowed the dream of a new Swadesh in the minds of the people of East Pakistan struggling for their national emancipation.
Pohela Baishakh become a clarion call to the nation in search of its identity and parallel to the national democratic movement its impact could only grow further. In the following years the venue became over-crowded with people joining the festival and the musical soiree in the early morning of the first day of Bengali New Year was resonated with similar events organized in various places of the country. The Bengali nationalist upsurge was cultural as much as it was political. Thus the nation prepared herself to face all eventualities and when the Pakistan Army launched their genocidal attack upon the people on 25 March, 1971 the nation resisted with strong unity and determination. Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation after a nine-month long bloody war of liberation paying very high price. But the role of nation, nationality and nationhood in context of Bangladesh struggle had not been properly understood.
The struggle of liberation based on national identity had been a strong force in the twentieth century and its significance can still be felt in the present days. The national struggle had also been manipulated and misused by the powers of the state and the politicians; as such it never got due recognition from the academic and intelligentsia. The leftist and Marxists were also uncomfortable with nationalist phenomenon although the rulers inspired by them never failed to use state-sponsored nationalism to promote their political agenda. Eric Hobsbawm, the sage of twentieth century Marxism pointed out that, “Marxist movement and states have tended to become national not only in form but in substance i.e., nationalists. There is nothing to suggest that this trend will not continue”. He penned these lines in 1977 and much water have flowed down the Ganges after that. Lot of studies and analysis of nationalist phenomenon has been made but the nationalism of the colonized people never got the recognition it deserved of which one glaring example is the case of Bangladesh.
A seminal work on the question of nationalism has been made by Benedict Anderson whose book 'Imagined Communities', published first in 1983 became a point of reference for subsequent studies. The term 'imagined' attracted the imagination of many and became the most-quoted phrase to depict nationalism. The fallacy of the term used universally is exposed in case of Bangladesh which was not an imagined construction, but developed on historical roots and connectivity. The nation, like the race or religion of the community, can never get out of it. On the contrary the concept of imagined community can be applied in case of 'Two-Nation' theory propagated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the state he helped to be founded. To term Muslims of India as a nation vis-a-vis the Hindus had very little logic behind it. The other part of the 'two-nation' construction never imagined them as a nation. One of the first acts of the govt. of independent India was to redraw the state boundaries according to linguistic cultural identity. And in the land of 'Muslim Nation', one of the first acts of the regime was to deny language rights of the majority Bengali population. In spite of religious homogeneity, like the Bengalis the West Pakistani Muslims also belonged to various linguistic-cultural groups that is nationhood. They represented different nationality like the Sindhis, Pathans, Beluchis and Punjabis. To create a single Muslim nationhood out of the multinational, multi-religious, multi-ethnic reality of Pakistan was an impossible task and the rulers opted to use coercive power of the state to make their imagined construction a real entity. Such attempts by the state led to one of the cruelest genocide of the twentieth century and a worst example of Muslims killing Muslims alongside targeted attack on the Hindus in 1971.
Benedict Anderson based his study on the development of nationalism from Americas to Europe by the imperialist powers and also by the anti-imperialist resistances in Asia and Africa. His expertise was on Southeast Asia thereby Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam in their encounter with colonial masters got significant place in his formulation, but the Indian sub-continent had rarely been mentioned. The ever-evolving observations of Rabindranath Tagore on nationalism, his early enthusiasm regarding the rise of new national awakening of China and Japan and later-day criticism of national chauvinism of the state authority had not been taken account of. The significance of Bangladesh struggle was mentioned as a footnote and Benedict Anderson wrote that, “There are obviously plenty of cases, for example, old Pakistan; the explanation is not ethno-cultural pluralism but barred pilgrimages.”
The diversity in the history and geography of nationalism had been brilliantly highlighted by the author and his term 'Imagined Communities' need to be judged from this stand point. Acknowledging this diversity Benedict Anderson wrote, “My point of departure is that nationality or as one might prefer to put it in view of that word's multiple significations, national-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways that meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”
While Benedict Anderson made scanty reference to Bangladesh the recent book of Robert D. Kaplan titled “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” has a full chapter dedicated to Bangladesh and its existential challenges. The book is futuristic in many ways and the author lauded the role of Bangladesh as an Indian Ocean outpost, a part of the monsoon culture, extending its hands to two emergent great powers, India and China. The cultural artifacts of nationalist imagination attracted the author and he wrote, “The social cohesion that does exist on the nation level is the result not of democracy but of linguistic nationalism. This is ethnically homogenous country where– unlike in Pakistan or Iraq – Islam is not required as a glue to hold together disparate ethnic or sectarian groups. What is more, national identity is built on violent struggle. In 1947, Muslim Bengalis rose up against the British and against India to form East Pakistan. Next came the 1971 liberation war against Muslim West Pakistan, which saw widespread rape and executions in Dhaka by a West Pakistani military hell-bent on imposing Urdu language on the Bengalis. From East Pakistan (the “Land of the [Muslim] Pure” Bangladesh [the Land of Bengal] was created. Thus language replaced religion as the organizing principle of the society.”
Richard D. Kaplan traveled through-out the region and was awed by the vibrancy of Bengal society. He rightly observed that, “The miracle is not that how radical Bangladesh and much of the third world is, but how moderate they remain.”
Pohela Baishakh is part of this struggle to define the moderate liberal secular nationalism of Bangladesh which traveled a long way to become a national festival upholding distinct identity. It is a festival of Bengali nationhood which at the same time is joined by the similar festivity of various ethnic and national groups. Moreover the festival is not limited by the boundaries of the state but surpasses that to become great celebration of Asian people, from Nawroze of Iran to Sangkran of Thai and Cambodge people.
Thus Pohela Baishakh is gaining greater significance in view of today's national and global reality and it is heartening to see the growth of such festivity, in both cultural and economic terms, the mela and halkhata of the past reinventing itself in a more vigorous way. Let culture add imagination to the national identity of the people and let economy provide the power to move forward to translate the festivity into an occasion of joy and happiness for all.
The writer is an Author and Cultural Activist.