Quest for knowing and understanding Bangladesh | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 19, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 19, 2016

Quest for knowing and understanding Bangladesh

Author: Abul Maal A. Muhith || University Press Limited

THIS book traces the history of Bangladesh from ancient times in just over 400 pages. History of Bangladesh: A Subcontinental Civilisation has been written over a period of twenty two years by Abul Maal A. Muhith, a former high civil servant and currently Finance Minister of Bangladesh.

Chapter 1 ("Indian Civilisation and Bangladesh") lays down that, "Modern-day Bangladesh is just four decades old, but Bengal has always been an integral part of the subcontinent." While details about the history of this region is (sic) sketchy at best, this much is known: "Prehistoric Bengal was not a unified country at all and various parts were known under various names at different times…. But part of Brahmaputra basin also is the eastern part of Bengal from pre-historic times."  Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, of Iranian origin, is credited with finally establishing the name of Bangla when he declared himself the Shah of Bangala in 1342. That marked the beginning of close to three centuries of independent sultans in Bengal. Mughal emperor Jahangir finally ended the independence of the sultans in 1611.

In Chapter 2 ("Medieval India (490-1526 AD)"), Muhith showers accolades on the Hosain Shahi dynasty in Bengal and compares it favourably in terms of advancement with that of the rest of India: "In Bengal the modern age possibly began in 1493 with the golden age of the secular Hosain Shahi dynasty…. In India as a whole the modern age was somewhat delayed and it began with the Mughals in 1526." The author further extols India of the medieval period: "The Middle Age in Europe was the age of darkness and superstitions. The orthodox and ritualistic Popes ruled the world of thought and learning where the spirit of inquiry was ruthlessly banished.  In India on the other hand, it was a glorious period of imperial patronage and excellence in arts and literature and to an extent sciences as well." And, as if to underscore the cycles of history, soon after, the West came out of its medieval funk to embark on a period of dominance that continues to this day, while India, and notably Bangladesh, for long have stayed in the doldrums of underdevelopment, with India having shown signs for some time of becoming a significant global economic power and progressing noticeably in the areas of science and technology.

In an obvious reference to a longstanding subcontinental problem, Muhith notes how, for various reasons, Kashmir has become a central player in India from the seventh century. Regarding Muslim rule in Bengal, the author brings up some important issues.  He establishes a crucial aspect of the Bangladeshi ethos:  "Secularism is a historical inheritance of Bangladesh" ("Chapter 12, "Assertion of Bengali Nationalism in Pakistan"). Critically, this was strongly influenced by the fact that a "large influx of saints and Sufis into Bengal was responsible for widespread conversion of local people to Islam." This region was largely spared the influence of the strict Wahhabi brand that has taken hold of large swathes of the population of Pakistan. In fact, the Muslim rulers of north India placed Bengal in their sights only at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and Islam in this region was not proselytized by the sword at all. And, by the time the British raj was established in India, nearly half of Bengal's population were Muslims.

Muhith dwells at length on the rise of Bengali nationalism, and the centrality of Bangla in that phenomenon. He recounts the Pala period that was marked by the flourishing of Bangla language and literature, to be followed by the Sena era that saw a resurgence of Sanskrit and the neglect of Bangla.  He is of the view, and not a few would be inclined to agree with him, that the seeds of Bengali nationalism were sown during the freedom struggle of India against the British Raj and in the partition of Bengal, which aroused in the people an understanding of the Western concept of the nation-state. In act, he asserts that modern nationalistic feelings were fomented more vigorously in Bengal than in other parts of India, and that Bengali nationalism had also had to do with the secular state system initiated by Alauddin Hussain Shah in the fifteenth century, and continued by the Mughal Nawabs.  Secularism is a long tradition of the Bengali nation.  The author elucidates:  "Nationalism in Bangladesh owed a great deal to the growth of a syncretic Bengali society imbibing influences from original Paganism to Islam through Hinduism and Buddhism that received strong stimulus during Muslim rule in Bengal…. British rule…and Christian missionaries…also left their mark on the open society of Bengal…. Absorption of each other's secular ideas and practices was the basis of this syncretic rather than composite society."

Under the circumstances, the neglect of the sensitive issue of Bengali nationalism, anchored on its language and secular outlook, foreshadowed the eventual end of Pakistan.  "Pakistan, within months of its birth, became a divided nation." Muhith elaborates on his statement: "In the separated wings of Pakistan nationhood did not develop at all. In political thoughts the two regions were vastly different. While the eastern region was for democracy and the society had a measure of egalitarianism, the western region was dominated by feudal landlords and committed to authoritarianism." The 1952 language movement embodied the essence of Bengali nationalism and showed how important is Bangla to the Bengali ethos: "But the Language Movement continued till Bangla was recognized as a state language in the Pakistan Constitution on March 23, 1956. It was the success of this movement that stirred Bengali nationalism and could be credited with laying the foundation for the nation-state of Bangladesh."

The writer then moves chronologically through the events that led to the appropriate title of the sub-section of Chapter 14 ("Bangladesh Autonomy Movement and Pakistan's Last Phase"): "March 1971: Pakistan's Last Chapter". The author leads up to that chapter by reiterating that Awami League's Six Point Programme provided a mechanism for a confederation of Pakistan. He then concentrates on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's historic 7 March 1971 speech in which he "called for independence…but at the same time extended an olive branch to 'peaceably settle the differences and coexist as brothers'." This was likely Bangabandhu's finest hour where he displayed great sagacity as a constitutionalist at heart who also had the utmost interest of the Bengali nation in his heart. That is why, in that speech, "he stopped short of a unilateral declaration of independence that would have been tantamount to the absurd situation of a cessation call by the majority population of a nation.  Instead…Sheikh Mujib invited General Yahya to a dialogue for the resolution of the crisis. He did not fully trust the military junta, however, and so asked the Bengalis to prepare if necessary for a struggle for independence." His prudence and sagacity later served Bangladesh's cause as being just in various countries during its liberation war.

Muhith details how, on 26 March, M.A. Hannan read out from the Chittagong Radio station Bangabandhu's wireless message calling for Bangladesh's independence, and how, on 27 March, then Major Ziaur Rahman read out the declaration again over the radio, proclaiming "on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence of Bangladesh."  The author talks about the absolutely decisive role played by the USSR and India in Bangladesh's liberation struggle, as well the geopolitical realities of the Cold War during that time. Liberation was achieved and Bangladesh became a sovereign independent nation-state.

Muhith ends his narrative with the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975, and the tumultuous events of its aftermath. They all proved tragic for the future direction of liberal pluralist democracy in Bangladesh.  Bangabandhu was a towering figure and Bangladesh could find none of his stature to follow him. That has had the sad and unwanted effect of having the nation sharply divided against itself along political-ideological lines. Yet this country has so much potential to go further than it has as a reasonably united nation. 

History of Bangladesh: A Subcontinental Civilisation is a notable tour de force of Muhith.  It is a rather compressed account of largely chronologically arranged history that would likely leave many readers scrambling for the Wikipedia or a standard encyclopedia, but this is a book worth going through for tracing Bangladesh's genesis from way back to the Pundrabardan civilization in and around Bogra, and the Brahmaputra civilization of Wari-Bhateshwar near Dhaka and in neighbouring Vikrampur.

(Reprint after modification)

The reviewer is an Actor and Professor and Head, Media and Communication department, IUB.

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