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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 142 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 21 , 2004

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Losing Sight of Priorities

Mustafa Zaman

A few years ago, Shamim Rahman, a student of the English Department of Dhaka University, was on the look out for a couple of books on songs, which the Bangla Academy had published a long while ago. Shamim went straight to the sales centre of Bangla Academy and asked the attending men whether the books were still available. The attendants asked him to come back an hour later, which he did. But to his disappointment, Shamim found out that his desired titles were not there. From the perfunctory attitude that the attendant showed, Shamim realised that even if the books were lying somewhere in the shelves, there was no way of getting his hands on them. "At the sales centre of Bangla Academy they do not allow you to browse for yourself, rather they will show an aversion to sell their own stuff, they just don't care..." says Shamim.

Tucked away from the public eye, in one corner of the Academy premises, there is this tiny building where the sales centre is housed. It is an unlikely setting for an outlet of an academy that may not have business in mind, but certainly has a lot to answer for, as far as instigating the interest of the Bangla-speaking mass in indigenous culture and knowledge as a whole.

Bangla Academy is the immediate result of the 1952 Language Movement. Founded on December 3, 1955, it was the election promise of the United Front who came to power defeating the Muslim League. The United Front, comprising the political allies headed by such legendary leaders as Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, AK Fazlul Huq and H S Suhrawardy, came to power in 1954. They proposed turning the Burdwan House into a student hostel and a language research centre. Later Fazlul Huq, the chief minister of the newly formed United Front government took initial steps to set up an academy. But the process was disrupted as dissolution of the United Front government and imposition of governor's rule followed in the then East Pakistan. In June the governor's rule was withdrawn, and the United Front government were reinstalled, though to enjoy a short tenure. It was at this time Abu Husain Sarkar, the new chief minister, inaugurated Bangla Academy.

On that propitious day, the Bangalis of East Pakistan, for the first time, won their right to be proud of their racial and cultural origin. The Academy was the first tangible shape that the Bangali leaders could give to the aspirations of this populace, who so far had been engaged only in political agitation against the hegemony of West Pakistan.

Bangla Academy was fashioned after the French Academy. For a nation, whose meritocrats always suffered from Anglophilia, this was a revolution. "Bangla Academy was launched with revolutionary ideas in mind. It produced many classics in the past. There were books that were even translated from Persian. Siar-e-Mukaharrim Baharistan i Gayebi the books that contain historical accounts of East Bengal are examples," says Sajjad Sharif, a poet and one of the deputy editors of the daily Prothom Alo. "Somewhere along the line the number of classics both in translation and in original research began to dwindle," he quickly adds.

Initially Bangla Academy was run by a committee, as is the case of any government institution. Later in 1957, the Bangla Academy Act was passed, giving the Academy the status of an autonomous organisation. Financed by the government, it started off boldly setting its own agendas and designing its own course. In the Pakistan era, fund constraint was the most lamentable topic among the academy staffers. Yet the Academy thrived on whatever pittance it received. The contributions from scholars like Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, Dr Mohammad Enamul Huq and their contemporaries made a difference. Dr Enamul Haq was the first director general of Bangla Academy. He, along with his contemporary scholars, had the vision to work towards building a body of knowledge that would not only reflect the past glories but also contribute to future developments in the territories of language, literature, arts and letters. Undoubtedly these individuals have given the Academy the reputation that many Bangalis still bank on.

Bashir Al Helal, writer and scholar, former DG of the Academy, wrote in an article in Prothom Alo, "Bangla Academy has produced huge volumes of research works, for which it deserves praise." He also added that as the academy promotes Bangla and its yields encompass works on language, literature and culture, it has appealed to the Bangla-speaking populace as a whole, and in West Bengal its role has also been praised." Helal distinguishes a downtrend in publishing of good books that coincided with the gradual increase in fund. He says, "During the Pakistan era, the central government used to allocate a meagre fund for the Academy, that always seemed to keep the academy begging for more. But as Bangladesh came into being and the fund has been fattened, productions of potential works have dwindled." Shajjad Sharif agrees, and adds that the Academy has done most of its monumental works in the sixties, and a few right after the liberation war.

Over the years the breadth and scope of the fields of interest have expanded, yet most of the important research work was the yield of the generation that grew up before Bangladesh was born. The birth of a new nation provided the scope for a lot of rhetoric, but failed utterly in creating a turf to accommodate new talents. When it comes to picking the best brains of the nation, Bangla Academy has shown signs of chronic myopia. As far as initiatives are concerned, the gear has shifted to unproductive sectors in the last couple of decades. The academy is now more about cultural programmes, and stage-centred activities than about research and cultivation of knowledge. The book fair is a big event that the mass people consider to be of immense significance. But should the Academy provide all the logistics and organisational support to such an event, is a question that many are raising today.

The Academy was originally meant to be the epicentre for extensive research. But often enough it fell prey to unwarranted interventions, mostly from the direction of the corridor of power. Pursuit of knowledge, when interrupted, goes astray. "Bangla Academy has never been left alone, political influence has always undermined the independence of the Academy," says Sharif. This led to a lot of projects that seem plain misadventures in retrospect. "The Academy has misused a lot of funds in producing useless books, books that are unoriginal," opines Salimullah Khan, a scholar in the field of history and linguistics.

During the Awami League government, a hand-picked few received special treatment. If the number of books by these writers is any guide, one can clearly detect how the party riding power can monopolise an institution in order to see a germination of books produced by people of the their own political hues. Political belief or ideology is not the monster that lurks behind this favouritism, or nepotism. Pure nepotism is the only politics that intervenes. A manuscript by Habibur Rahman, the Chief Advisor of the Interim Government of 1996 was shelved for five years, but as soon as he became Chief Advisor, the Academy hurriedly published his book.

"Bangla Academy is often caught in the fad of the season. For example, at one time there was immense enthusiasm for research on war. I am not saying that books containing war documents should not be published. There was this body that was established to collect and compile all the documents of the war of '71, they could have taken up this huge project of bringing out books instead of Bangla Academy doing it. Bangla Academy should engage in researches that no other institution would consider doing," believes Sharif.

Fads, favouritism and monopoly in choosing the manuscript, these are the things that cast a murky shadow over this establishment. The most crude feature is not the emptiness of the research cell on the second floor of the Burdwan House, which looks like a Victorian quarter with large, old showcases that seems to have been abandoned and put up to scare away any intruder. Neither is the library on ground floor too welcoming with its stuffy atmosphere and seemingly makeshift arrangement to facilitate boredom. But what really gives the Academy a bad name is the selection process. Many consider the selection process faulty, needing immediate revision. "The Academy has published a lot of books that are originals; it published translations like Al Mokaddim by Ibne Khaldun, Bharat Totto by Al Biruni. These are good translations from Arabic. It also published Ancholic Bhasha Obhidhan (The Encyclopeadia of Colloquial Language), by Dr. Mohammad Shahidullah, which is an immensely important work," says Khan. He adds that when the rules of selection are manipulated the aim of the academy suffers.

Salimullah Khan is also dead against the project, which is aptly titled -- Bangla Academy Promit Bangla Banan (Spelling reform). "Don't get me wrong, I am not against reform, but I must say that the project taken up during the regime of Ershad is dictatorial. It is uneducated, corrupt and was hurriedly done by people who had no formal education and qualification in the specialty called the modern science of linguistics," emphasises Khan. He further adds that the project was implemented without having to take into consideration the far-reaching impact on our language and culture. "Done in a departmental manner, the reform took off without issuing any announcement and work went on without consulting scholars," says Khan. The Bangla spelling reform has done more harm than any Bangla-hating Arabophile of the past could ever think of inflicting.

Another letdown is to find a sea of unexplored contemporary knowledge. In fact the Academy shuns the whole spectrum of knowledge, in both the international and national arenas. On the home turf, it avoids publishing works by Hindu scholars and ignores all knowledge that has relevance in contemporary thought. "Why shouldn't we see the works of Binoi Kumar Sarkar in print, who was a sociologist of some substance?" asks Khan. He favours publishing of important works of undivided Bengal irrespective of the religious faith of the scholars.

As for translating the world classics, it has never dawned on the Academy that books like Orientalism, by Edward Said, or Madness and Civilisation, by Foucault, will help change the stagnancy in the area of the cranium. In Sharif's opinion, Bangla Academy should be the aakor (the fundamental source) of Bangali knowledge. Both in the creative and intellectual fields, it should be the pioneer." He also believes that "along with the classics of the world it should also delve into contemporary knowledge and creativity".

About the standard of the original books a lot can be said. Salimullah Khan is of the opinion that the Academy is short on original publications long on dross. He believes that both in research and in the field of creative writing, originality must be given priority. He also adds that most of the problems lie in the process of selection. The selection process, the crucial decision to ditch one manuscript to pick another that will be added to the long list of academy publications, is faulty and in dire need of revision.

Bashir Al Helal, suggested a survey to assess the achievement of the Academy. This would only work when the routine interventions would no longer pester this national institute.

In 2003, Bangla Academy completed its 35 years. On that year the number of publications stood at 4365 thousand. These are just figures. It is the qualitative considerations by which the outputs of the Academy should be measured. It has long been running out of many old classics. The reprinting has been put on hold on the ground that during the previous government a lot of reprinting was done to financially favour certain writers. The marketing too is one aspect to which the Academy did not pay much attention. It has largely been the concern of the agencies. There used to be 58 enlisted agencies engaged in distribution and sale. After six new entries, the number now stands at 60.

If development of language and knowledge is the aim of the Academy, its priorities regarding choices of titles and how the productions will reach the target readers must be straightened out. The possibilities of putting things back onto the rail are still in sight. The old house can still be the seedbed of new knowledge. One can only hope that the government, or should one say whatever the party in power, will let the Academy choose its own course.


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