Literature and national consciousness | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 14, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:22 AM, December 14, 2020


Literature and national consciousness

Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was a Bangladeshi educator and humanist. In 1971, he was a Reader at the University of Dhaka, as well as provost of Jagannath Hall. On the black night of March 25, 1971, Pakistani military officers broke into his flat and shot Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta in cold blood after cordoning off the entire Dhaka University campus with tanks, mortars and armed vehicles. The wounded intellectual died of his injuries on March 30, 1971. This article was originally published in 1962 in ‘Matters of Moment’ and was later reprinted in ‘Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta Sharokgrantha’.

National consciousness, unless we twist the expression to mean tribal consciousness which is as old as history, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It originated in Europe during the Reformation, when the State was separated from the church. It was then mixed up with a new religious consciousness which endorsed the separation and in its extreme form i.e., the Puritan Movement sought to remove all intermediaries not only between the state and the individual but also between God and man. But National consciousness, which was originally defensive, was little more than the instinctive love one feels for one's own community strengthened by allegiance to the newly organised Nation trying to defend itself against the forces of Counter-Reformation. National consciousness evolved into Nationalism or the Cult of Nation in Germany during the Napoleonic regime in the early nineteenth century. The idealisation of the Nation-State, a distinctive feature of German culture, was the result of a widespread feeling of frustration among the Germans who had been struggling without success to carve out a Nation-State ever since the sixteenth century. Fichte, the romantic prophet of German Nationalism wrote:

"The Germans are the (chosen) people, metaphysically destined, possessed of the moral right, to fulfil the destiny by every means of cunning and force."

Thanks to the spread of liberal education under the British, National consciousness in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent has been on the whole free from the trait of aggressive nationalism. The Hindu National consciousness under the influence of Bankim, Tilak and Arabindo came perilously close to the Aryan past, the deification of the historic-geographical entity, Bharat. There was also the added stimulus from the victory of an Asiatic nation in the Russo-Japanese war. But the Gandhian cult of non-violence and liberalism of CR Das acted as brakes to the nationalist zeal of the extremists. The liberal trend in Hindu Nationalism was the direct consequence of achievements of the men of the Bengali Renaissance such as Rammohan, Madhusudan, Vidyasagar and Tagore. With them, National consciousness was just another name for the instinctive love of one's own country and her life-giving traditions which they all tried to revaluate, each in his own way in the light of western rationalism.

The beginning of Muslim National consciousness may be traced in the anti-British Wahabi Movement which paradoxically enough was supranational in character. The Wahabi has been described as "Anabaptist in religion and red-republican in politics." Toynbee has described them as zealots who were up against everything modern. The Wahabis were, however, the first terrorists of India and took prominent part in the peasant revolts in Bengal against the indigo planters. They were puritan and were highly critical of the hybridisation of Muslim culture in the eastern parts of India. The more intellectually and spiritually gifted leaders of the Khilafat Movement tried without success to launch a freedom movement with a view to establishing a caliphate in the Muslim world in the beginning of the twentieth century. There is a tendency in certain quarters to trace the origin of the Pakistan movement in the ideas of the Khilafatis. The argument runs like this: The Muslim League when it was first founded was more concerned with jobs for the educated Muslim and separate electorate than independence from British Raj. The spirit behind the Lahore Resolution, 1940 was therefore a new thing altogether. Wasn't it the same spirit that moved the Wahabis and the Khilafatis? To my mind, the new spirit at work is the spirit of the new middle class which had already begun to assert, a class which was brought into existence by the pioneering efforts of Sir Syed Ahmad and which was the Muslim counterpart of the English-educated Hindu middle class intelligentsia. Deeply rooted in the spiritual traditions of Islam, Sir Syed realised, as Rammohan had done half a century earlier, that without western education which they had hitherto ignored, the Muslims of the subcontinent could not make much headway in a world completely dominated by the scientific and humanistic culture of the west. If there is any progenitor of the Pakistan movement, it is the Aligarh movement. There was no trace of the politico-cultural medievalism of the Khilafatis in the temper and outlook of the leadership of the Pakistan movement, which grew as the Hindu Nationalist movement gathered momentum. It grew as an "opposition" in a bid for its legitimate share of political power.

In Bengal, however, the bulk of the peasantry which supported the Pakistan movement was conservative and puritanical in outlook. The Wahabis and the Khalifatis had left a legacy which was still very active in the villages. The Sufi-Vaishnavic mysticism of the middle ages which brought the Hindu and the Muslim peasant under common cultural participation had already become a spent force. The new puritanism drew its inspiration from the simplicity and purity of early Islam, sought to purify Islam of both mystical and idolatrous accretions and was frankly suspicious of the secular eclecticism of the English educated Muslim, of their sophistication and urbanism. On the other hand, the educated middle-class which still had its root in the soil, in its turn smarted under a sense of alienation from native traditions. To the educated up-country Muslim with his feudal background, the Pakistan movement meant little more than the restoration of power and privileges he once enjoyed during the days of the Great Mughals. He was less concerned with the cultural aspects of political freedom,

for he had already a highly sophisticated country culture of his own. Fedualism has been abolished but sophisticated aristocratic attitude typical of feudal relationships persists in spite of Western education in the absence of an organised peasant movement conscious of its rights.

After independence, the Pakistan movement showed its chief weakness in that it was built on an insecure cultural foundation. The new middle class intelligentsia was too weak to resist the political chaos that set in with the disintegration of the Muslim League. The decay of that great national organisation was itself a symptom of the crisis. The army took over in October 1958 after years of misrule. It was felt for the first time since independence that Pakistan was yet to evolve into what Albert Hourani of Oxford called a political society, where various group loyalties would be integrated into loyalty to the nation-state. It was no wonder, therefore, that the new regime laid the greatest emphasis on national unity and did everything it could to create conditions for positive cultural orientation of the national movement. The fundamental problems of Democracy and Islam are being raised and discussed as also the host of other problems connected with them. One of such problems is the role the literary people are expected to play in the promotion and enrichment of national consciousness resulting in increased stability and integrity of Pakistan as a nation-state.

According to Ziya Gokalp, the ideologist of Turkish nationalism, national movements first have a cultural awakening, then make political decisions and finally formulate an economic policy. Literature in the first stage of the Muslim national movement in India was consciously but spontaneously national. Who does not owe his debt of gratitude to the contributions of Iqbal, Hali, Kaikobad, Ismail Husain Shiraji and Nazrul Islam to the cultural awakening of the Indian Muslims? But the quality of thought in this literature was rather poor. Iqbal alone was the honourable exception. He alone had a distinctive vision of his own, based on a critical revaluation of both the heritage of Islam and that of the modern civilisation of Europe. He gave a new direction to the Muslim philosophical thought in India but curiously enough, he did not find a successor who could follow it up.

Starting about a century earlier, thanks to their acceptance of western rationalistic tradition, the men of the Bengali Renaissance found time enough to lay an effective philosophical foundation for the Hindu national movement. In the case of the Muslim national movement, the task remained unfinished. Not that such a task can ever be really finished. What I want to say is that our intellectual preparation for a modern Muslim state was rather inadequate. We were racing against time and wishfully thought that deficiency in critical thought could be made up by an overbalance of action. But we are, on the whole, on the right track. We know that we are weak but not weak enough to be infected by the "terrible frenzy" of the Arab world which has yet to find a crystallisation of its national aspirations in an organised political society.

It is often pointed out that we are still to go a long way before we find a common cultural base for the much desired national unity—a unity more significant and meaningful than mere political unity. We Bengalees suffer, it is alleged, from an excessive attachment for the regional culture in which we are born. But is regionalism necessarily inconsistent with national unity? It will be useful to refer to the literary programme of the East Pakistan Renaissance Society (founded in Calcutta in 1941) in this connection:

To publish the works of the Muslim writers hitherto neglected by the Hindu intelligentsia.

To return to the medieval punthi literature, and folklore of East Bengal for inspiration.

To depict the social life and religious consciousness of east Pakistani Muslims.

To produce literature based on the Islamic cultural tradition not only of India but also of other Muslim countries of the world.

The programme rightly stresses the importance of the regional cultural tradition and of the Islamic tradition as whole. The programme marks a fruitful departure from the ideological romanticism of both the Wahabi and the Khilafat movement and is a bold attempt to root East Pakistan culture "more deeply into its locale". In the brochure entitled Muslim traditions in Bengali literature, Mr Syed Ali Ashraf writes:

"The emotions of the Bengali Muslims were not attached to their soil, they did not think much about their own surroundings, they did not draw much inspiration from their recent past; they attached their emotions to their evolutionary glory of Early Islam, ... The difference between Muharram Shareef of Kaikobad and Navi Vangsha of Syed Sultan clearly indicates that these values of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were puritanic."

Mr Ashraf's later statement, that it is in the Pakistan movement that the puritanism found its goal, I find difficult to accept. The stress on regional literature which is partly secular and partly Islamic is a new element which can be hardly described as puritanical. If there is anything wrong in it, from an artist's point of view it is the parochial nature of the programme. It excludes reference to the two of the most vital literary traditions that are meaningful for every writer in Bengali, namely the nineteenth century Bengali literature and modern European literatures. The nationalist approach to literature appeared to be wrong not because it gave precedence to cultural regionalism over the claims of political nationalism but because it ignored the supranational aspects of literary traditions, and tended to make literature an instrument of politics. In actual practice, however, the sponsors of this programme were more catholic in their literary taste.

In matters cultural there are certain tangible local elements which cannot be suppressed for the sake of political uniformity. Mr Tremaine McDowell, an American author, writes:

"Josiah Royce thoroughly approved of what he called provincialism as calculated to root Americans more deeply in their own locale and thus to strengthen resistance to conformity and mass hysteria. His provincialism we today call regionalism."

Regionalism in literature, painting and music is the interpretation of human experience in the symbols which the artist finds in that area of United States with which, either for life or for the moment, he is most familiar. This does not mean that regional art is merely local. It employs unmistakably regional language to express the universal—otherwise it is not art—If a region is not to relapse into a section, it must constantly share with other regions what it possesses.

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