What do we celebrate when we celebrate 'special' days?
We [middle class] Bangladeshis seem to have mastered the art of "observing", "celebrating" and "commemorating" days, while skillfully circumventing what the day actually stands for. It's the new trend, you see. We go all out to mark the special occasion -- embellishing ourselves in the "colours" of the day, putting up cover photos, selfies and FB statuses, hosting talk shows and seminars, printing special supplements in our respective newspapers, giving grandiloquent and self-righteous speeches about the solemn significance of the day, and making catchy advertisements and themed products to attract an ever-so-hip audience. But when it comes to actually dissecting the true meaning of the given day, of historicising the said event and harnessing its radical potential, we are ostensibly missing in action. We are quite happy, thank you very much, to superficially engage with an issue and then sweep it under the rug as soon as the day is over.
Take Ekushey, for instance. Come every February, there's no end to our syrupy-slushy gushing in proclaiming the grandeur of our language, Bangla, and in lamenting the loss of pride in our mother tongue. Forget that for the rest of the year we are content basking in the remnants of our colonial legacy, practicing English in the courts and instituting a highly hierarchical education system that privileges those who can transact in the valuable currency, English. Forget that many of us are oblivious of the implications of being unable to complete a whole sentence in Bangla, even though we have spent our whole lives here, and that our shelves, if filled with books in the first place, do not reflect the rich literary, philosophical and theoretical tradition of the country. Forget that we still hold those who can speak in American or British accents in awe, while mocking those who speak in "broken" or Bangladeshi English. Forget that we play exclusively Hindi or English music in the lounges, supermarkets and restaurants – except, of course, on Feb 21 – and compose our signboards in English, even if and when it makes no sense to do so.
We are quite content to keep the Ekushey celebrations limited to wearing black and white attire on the given day and, if time and traffic permits, placing wreaths in the Shaheed Minar. Somehow, we have managed to make Ekushey a strictly middle-class affair, failing to analyse the ways in which our current language policies (or lack thereof) and even our celebrations narrowly define national belonging and exclude those on the "margins." Somehow, in our haste to uphold the chetona of Ekushey, we fail to see the parallel between Pakisanis imposing their language on us, and us imposing Bangla on the non-Bangla speaking communities in our country, robbing them of their right to speak and be educated in their mother tongue. We remain willfully oblivious of the ways in which history repeats itself, as tragedy and farce all in one.
And so, in the very month of February, a writer gets hacked to death and a whole year passes – not enough time for any real progress into the killing, but enough time, apparently, for four more freethinkers, including his publisher, to be murdered; for his whole life's work to be erased from the hallowed grounds of the illustrious book fair; for cracking down on those who dare raise unmentionable questions. But what does freedom of expression have to do with chetona of Ekushey anyway, right? And so, not too far from the very place where Avijit was killed, we sip our Nescafés in silence and buy some book of apolitical jokes or cheap love poems, oblivious that another publisher was picked up, and his store shut down by the police, reportedly following allegations of "hurt sentiments" by none other than the infamous Basher Kella, Jamaat's propaganda-machine. It might be the month of Ekushey, but we know better by now than to grumble about the state's confusing and/or coercive actions…
But enough about Ekushey. February is over, after all, and our attention span is already wavering. Let's get into gear to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8; let's don our purple sarees and hope that the couple of inches earmarked to talk about "women's issues" in the front page of newspapers do not get subsumed by glossy half-page ads of beauty products claiming to uphold women's rights through ensuring fairer skin, silky straight hair, and alluring fragrance. Don't sweat (sweating is unladylike -- there's a myriad of products to help you smell like a freshly-plucked flower) that for the rest of the year the media outlets will keep on using images of skimpily-clad, heavily made-up women as click-baits to lure an audience bored by news of violence against women, wage gap, gender disparity in political representation, and systematic violations in the workplace. Don't fret that the countless seminars, vigils and talks organised on that day will continue to advocate a reductive, NGOised, neoliberal, vision of women's empowerment that doesn't threaten patriarchy or capitalism, but makes oppression palatable, even marketable. Don't worry that the day will nonetheless celebrate the middle-class woman, and women's rights as seen through her privileged eyes. Don't bother, really, to historicise and politicise the International Women's Day as a day to demand political, social and economic emancipation – be content to celebrate your "womanhood" while remaining as far as possible from the ever-so-threatening F-word (feminism).
Then, when March 26, rolls around, we will see no conflict of muktijuddher chetona with shrinking democratic spaces, increasing intolerance and religious extremism, rising income inequality and corporate plunder in the country. We will lose no sleep wondering how far we have strayed from the path of justice and emancipation as envisioned prior to and during the Liberation War; rather we'll shamelessly threaten dissenters who dare remind us of the trail left behind. We'll carry on looting our national resources, raping the women and children, terrorising the adivasis and marginalised communities and conducting any and all anti-liberation activities, but when it's March 26, our voice will be the loudest in brazenly proclaiming that we are the upholders of the sacrifices of millions.
What we really celebrate when we "celebrate" special days is our collective myopia -- an inability to look beyond what's on the surface.
The writer is a journalist and activist.