Bangla nationalism
Identity and state

Afsan Chowdhury

As Bangladeshis, we trace our roots to the language movement which began almost immediately after our second host country, Pakistan, came into being soon after it was split up from our first and primary host country, British India. Our sense of identity produced by language was always high, even in the founding meeting of the Muslim League at Dhaka in 1906. At this meeting seen as a rallying gathering of Indian Muslims, Bengali leaders raised the issue of their own language based identity and culture along with their faith based politics.

Urdu's journey to and in Pakistan
Urdu emerged as the lingua franca of the Pakistan movement that was led by the Urdu speaking elite of the erstwhile United Provinces of India, roughly aligned to present day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and adjoining areas. It was also the language of Pakistan after 1947 too partly because the Urdu speaking elite who ran the early days of Pakistan were largely from the same zone led by the first Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, a Muhajir. Pakistani historians will have to analyse if he was good or bad for Pakistan in the long run, but his assassination was an indicator that he had made powerful enemies within the Pakistani ruling class.

Urdu declined in power and status not much because Bengalis refused it universal status but mostly as the Punjabi and Sindhi elite --- geographically Pakistani locals, fought back and ultimately drove them from leadership, political and commercial. Subsequent violence against the Biharis of Pakistan and Bangladesh probably carry the code of revenge against Pakistan as a language based ideological state.

The 'Pakistan' of pre-1947 imagination was a restoration aspiration of the cancelled Mughal supremacy represented by the overthrown Urdu elite of India that led the Pakistan movement. This contest of Hindus and Hindi based ideology birthed Pakistan, kept it going through the early years but began to retreat around the decade of 50s as industrialization took off in Pakistan and money shifted largely to non-Muhajir hands.

The Pakistan state was always anti-Hindu but not anti-Hindi soon after 1947 since Hindi had had no cultural existence in Pakistan. On its own, Urdu declined as a political force and was further reduced into a political force of a city based ethnic elite MQM- after 1971. In fact, after Pakistan's humiliation in 1971 it too died and it was therefore possible to leave behind hundreds of thousands of Urdu speaking Biharis in Bangladesh to face the savage wrath of Bengalis hungry for revenge. There was no longer any political cost in abandoning those who were loyal to a nationalism that birthed Pakistan, created a new elite class and finally failed to create a functional state because the ruing class had largely changed.

The new post-1971 Pakistan is not a product of Urdu language based culture looking for a home. Pakistan is created by aspirations of a new elite class that uses the state itself as a source of ideology. Hating India is more important than loving what birthed Pakistan. It is not a continuation of the older Pakistan with its cultural roots now lying in primary host country India and now its prime enemy. While the common element is anti-Hindu feelings, present Pakistan is more about anti-India, more about contesting a state rather than any cultural identity. It's more about itself and its geography.

Bengali: The identity and the state
If one nationalist ideology died in 1971, another successful birth was Bangladesh where language and its cultural expression became the dominant state ideology. Unlike Urdu, however, Bengali was not upheld by immigrants from another land but residents of the state themselves. Thus, there was no ethnic conflict about the ruling class structuring. All were Bengalis and spoke Bengali and were Muslims. The issue lay in the aspiration of the people who took power and refusal to segregate the Bengalis as per their socio-economic conditions.

In Bangladesh, language became the tool for post-state nationalism building coupled with religious identity expansion which the present face of the constitution shows. Historically, nationalism is an effective instrument to fight domination of another state or ethnic elite but in case of post-1971 Bangladesh, no such issue remained so the produced nationalism became a surplus product that has instead of building political muscle generated a great deal of not so useful political obesity. It doesn't serve any meaningful purpose if cultural celebrations became an end in themselves as Ekushey appears to have become over time. Or did they?

Celebrations can produce new nationalisms but their role in contemporary Bangladesh is not so clear. Of course, it has a role in celebrating the concept of 'Bengali' nationalism but, otherwise, one may ask about the link between the nationalist celebration of Bengali and the relationship with the state.

Of course, celebrations affirm the identity of the state and the state leadership from whichever construct they may emerge but the split in Bangladesh is not ethnicity based barring the small CHT population of several shades. Language has provided a common cloak for all which has also forced a sense of unanimity and uniformity of the population although the socio-economic spaces they occupy vary from each other. The split is the divide between the less and the more.

With the death of class politics and absence of any nationalist content, there is no pressure on the ruling class to share state benefits with others because modern states deliver either under threat of nationalist movements or because of demands of their own democratic structures.

In the case of Bangladesh, the language based ruling class has used the lingo-ethnic identity to build nationalism, cause birth of the state and continue ruling without facing any threat from any quarter. They have also faced little pressure to build democratic governance structures so they neither feel obligated to change the way the people are ruled. It seems it is rather nice to be a Bengali Muslim in Bangladesh with regular affirmations of national identities through public celebrations which shield any scrutiny of the construct that birthed the state and continues to sustain it.

So the spirit that built the machine that delivered the state may be a major factor in ensuring that the benefits remain limited to a small number of people. After all, everyone is the same. They all speak Bengali, both the desperate rulers and the desperately helpless class of the ruled.

Afsan Chowdhury is a senior journalist and noted historian.

©, 2010. All Rights Reserved