Love at a time of violence
British historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger famously invented the term "invention of a tradition," by which they meant certain traditions in British society, especially British monarchy, that were not there in the pas t -- hence, not traditions in the real sense but were invented only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This means that traditions can often be created by modern minds.
In Bangladesh, Valentine's Day, which has morphed into so-called "Love Day" or "World Love Day," is a very good example. This day was invented by Mr. Shafik Rehman, a returnee journalist from the United Kingdom who started a popular magazine, Jai Jai Din in 1984 and used his fame and popularity to bring Valentines Day to Bangladesh, which he called "Love Day" or Bhalobashadibosh. What was perhaps a harmless gimmick in a popular magazine eventually became an occasion, a day of celebration not only among love-birds but also as a serious subject of talk shows and special programmes on television and features in the print media.
Valentine's Day has its historic origin in Christian theology, and the name is derived from Saint Valentine, a martyred saint from ancient Rome. In modern times, Valentine's Day in the west has also been a day of celebration of love and exchanges of gifts promoted to a large part by the greeting card companies.
In less than three decades, this day has become an invented tradition in Bangladesh. I do not begrudge the youngsters and others who find in this day an occasion to strike up a relationship or renew a precarious relationship using the day as an excuse. Nor do I envy the flower shops that do brisk business on a day like this. In fact, Hallmark and other card businesses had a role in institutionalising various days of the calendar, such as Father's Day, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day as special occasions. Commerce is a potent factor in nurturing and, sometimes inventing, cultural traditions.
This Valentine's Day, my mind veers off not so much to love but to violence that afflicts Bangladesh. Violence was not introduced by any journalist or politician; it is an integral part of Bangladesh society. We take notice of it only when something as dramatic as the twin-murder of a journalist couple takes place. Why is so much violence in a society which is proud of its tradition of love, fellow-feelings, sympathy and so many other nice qualities.
A British administrator once said of Bengalis that they are individually cowards but collectively cruel. The cruelty was best expressed in the mob beating of six college students to death in the summer of 2011 and in the dastardly attack on the hapless families and unarmed officers during the BDR uprising in 2009. The cruelty was also present in the murder of the young journalist couple. We still have to wait for the investigations to be over to know what the motives of the murderers were.
What Bangladeshis need now is to be calm and not be swayed by emotions and politics. Some politicians showed up immediately after the news broke to take political mileage of this tragedy. In making irresponsible remarks, they forgot that even in the world's most peaceful countries (Norway and Singapore) crimes such as murders do take place. Sure, Bangladesh is no Norway or Singapore and crimes are familiar events in the day-to-day life of Bangladesh. If politicians are blamed for poor governance, then all the past and present rulers must share the responsibility equally. Yes, improvement in the law order situation will help but I am not too sure that a culture of brutality and violence will disappear only with better policing.
Here we need some introspection. Are Bangladeshis really a violent people?
World Bank data show that Bangladesh is not any more violent than India or Pakistan.
International homicides per 1000,000 people (2000- 2009)
Source: World Development Report, 2011 pp. 336 -337.
In the above table Pakistan's and Sri Lanka's high numbers can be explained by civil-war like conditions that obtain in Pakistan today and Sri Lana earlier. Thailand's number seems to contradict the image of the land of smiles. I say that with due respect to the Thai people who are gentle and polite. So are Bangladeshis. Known as a nation of poets and lovers, Bangalees are gentle folks. Their hospitality is legendary, yet the other side of this docile, romantic image is cruel and unforgiving.
This Valentine's Day, spare a thought for the young journalist couple who will not exchange gifts again, nor will they be around to report. Life, for the rest of us, will go on lovingly and violently.