Reluctant Thinkers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 15, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 15, 2007

Reluctant Thinkers


Purba Banglai Chintacharcha (1947-1970) Dwanda O Protikria by Morshed S. Hasan: Dhaka: Anupam Prakashani; February 2007; pp. 1031; Tk. 700.00
History has few evidences that Bangladesh appears to be comfortable when in engagement with intellectuality. Apart from the tradition of emotion as the supreme artisan of cultures, there is apparent low demand for rigor in forming political or social ideas. It's a culture grappling to give shape to ideas formed by emotions. This phenomenon was noticed by many others before. Prof. Ahmed Sharif, the legendary academic, activist and closest to what we have had as an independent soul, had remarked that ours is a society where survival is so difficult that one cannot afford the luxury of thought. In this remarkable volume in question, Morshed Shafiul Hasan has journeyed through the history of the thought processes of a people who are somehow reluctant thinkers.
The author has completed a major academic task by describing the Bengali mind or the Bengali Muslim/ East Bengali mind after having possibly read and scrutinized nearly all the material relevant to the topic. This book should reside in every library as a reference book.
Morshed S. Hasan doesn't shy away from confronting the contesting cultures that produced the framework of his research. It's not useful space management to detail the chapters here but suffice to say that he has written what is relevant to understand the socio-political landscape as viewed by essayists and reviewers between 1947 and 1971. After reading the book, one is not presented with agreeable and agreeing answers but instead with the material to embark on one's own quest as to the centrality of this process as part of identity marking. It reveals the dilemma of constructing the ethno-religious identity of a population's shifting mind. Bangladesh/ East Pakistan mean two trends and in each case intellectuals have reflected the political views both as observers and sometimes as participants. It's presenting this task of separation that has been accomplished. Just as the book's triumph lies in the completion of this work, so does a necessity given that after Morshed, others may not attempt to discourse on the topic, which is to define the role of intellectuals in/to state making. I raise this question because they are obviously present in both 1947 and 1971, which are the book's primary borders. Some would say the argument has to do with state making rather than with the positioning of intellectuals vis-a vis the production of the state.
Of course, many such positions held by intellectuals and the gharana or lineage they generate have been referenced. So we have a Hali, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Allama Iqbal and later poets lined up to serve Islam's political ambitions in South Asia. And it's natural that many essays do appear which could be read as toeing this line carefully. The work of the later liberals of Bengal/ Bangladesh like Abdul Huq, who wrote about the glory of Islam and the responsibility of intellectuals to do so, is a sterling example of a new but historically failed construction. However, contesting the Pakistan state was a later phenomenon, as the book states, but all are part of this process.
Yet, the contra trend was already being produced, especially in the writings of the political Left such as Md. Toaha, Oli Ahad et al and other members of the 150 Mughultully Lane, the headquarters of the new intelligentsia - although coming out openly against Pakistan was not possible. Hence, the rallying position was the implementation of the Lahore Resolution, which to them was tantamount to a much better Pakistan or a near Bangladesh. I would remark that the impossibility of Pakistan appeared to the mainstream intellectuals later and that the radicals were ahead in this as would be expected. It's only when politics caught up with them that this made sense, albeit secretly, a 'treacherous' thought becoming one of the default objectives of sub/para or full blown nationalism.
Yet, it would be a simplistic argument to say that the contests within the intellectuals were a passing or weak fact of force. The Pakistan Writers Guild, an outfit birthed by Pakistani ruler Ayub Khan to entice intellectuals to their side, was rather successful and after the 1965 war with India, the radio programme “Ronagan” was bursting with Bangla intellectuals spewing Pakistani patriotism and hating India. It was then a popular time for Pakistan and hating India. But in Bangladesh it lasted for six months only till Sk. Mujib declared his 6-points and began to construct the final phase of Bengali nationalism in its full militant garb.
The same intellectuals soon stood against 'Pakistan' and the imposition of ideology from Islamabad. It was a time when the intellectuals closed ranks, barring the very Left who were confused. Marxism was also an emotional content here and was never served by the intellectual labour it demands.
What brought most together was the ban on Tagore and that turned into a cultural struggle, which had begun in 1948 and incorporated the wider political struggle in the final years of Pakistan using popular literary symbols. So it was the literary imagination that seems to have triumphed in the intellectuals' participation in societal pursuits. It also shows that our intellectuality is closer to emotions of Tagore and his pantheon, including the hazy world of vagueness and reality within which the intellectual has to prosper. Or perish.
Given that argument, how should one look at the use of first person in writing such a book? A lesser book may well have escaped such scrutiny but in a book dealing with intellectual history, how does one necessarily separate the dancer from the dance? Morshed is immersed, embedded even in his topic and it's sometimes difficult to say which is subjective opinion and which is objective analysis, where is the dividing line between observer and critic. I am taking this liberty to make this remark because much of what will be written later will be modeled on this absolutely ground-breaking book.
And that's why one must ask if he looks at intellectuality as a distinct concern on its own, or as a description of a larger process of social change. It does seem his verdict is that of 'reactivity' and most scholars have responded to challenges rather than start intellectual fires on their own. That issue is a significant one and lies within the book because eastern societies are not questioning ones. The dominant metaphor for them is a library rather than a debating hall.
Such a book, should one ever care to muddy one's boots in the long academic chapters, will be rewarded with illumination. The author has captured the gamut of East Bengali thinking in a single prize-winning tome. One can't meet this book with praise but can only say that the author has shown that Bengalis are capable of thought even if it's an occasional labour.

Afsan Chowdhury writes for a variety of South Asian newspapers and magazines. His latest book was a 4-volume study of the Liberation War.

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