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Bangali identity to Bangladeshi sovereignty: The unplanned bridge to freedom

  • Published at 06:54 pm March 25th, 2018
  • Last updated at 07:53 pm April 15th, 2018
Bangali identity to Bangladeshi sovereignty: The unplanned bridge to freedom
A movement that sparked over language set the stage for the creation nearly a quarter century later of a new sovereign nation-state. On February 21, 1952, however, when protests and demonstrations roiled the streets of Dhaka, and police fire claimed the lives of five young men, no one chanting “Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chaii” would have given a moment’s thought to a separate country named Bangladesh for that language and its speakers to exist. East Bengalis were fine with being part of the newly formed state of Pakistan, one could argue even happily so, as they had been at the forefront of supporting its cause. It was Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s declaration in Dhaka in March 1948 that only Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan that dealt Bangalis the first critical blow – the only one they needed. Bangladesh, in fact, had not been spoken of until after the general election of December 1970, which the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won by a landslide, and which General Yahya Khan refused to honor. As was proclaimed by Sheikh Mujib in his historic speech of March 7, 1971: “He [Yahya] didn’t keep his word to me, he kept his promise to Mr Bhutto.” In hindsight, it is easy to connect the emergence of Bangladesh as an inevitable outcome of the Bengali nationalism that ignited almost immediately following the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, of which the first and seminal episode was the Language Movement. But to do so would be closer to an oversight, if not over-generalization. Bangladesh’s emergence on December 16, 1971 was the result of vastly different circumstances than those that had fanned the flames of the Language Movement. Therefore, at the intersection of the two events stands the conundrum of being Bangali and/or Bangladeshi. For me this has become an increasingly fraught mental exercise, crammed as it is with its own charms and lures that perhaps only a writer and academic might feel like indulging in. Add to that my US citizenship, and I’m a living, breathing quintessence of postcolonial identity crises. But I choose to see it not as a crisis but an opportunity; to free myself of entanglements weaved by migration and emigration and circle back to the bridge connecting my Bangali ethnicity to my Bangladeshi identity. As I see it, no one claiming roots and/or identity from the subcontinent can make a clean getaway from a chat about colonization. Colonization in the form that is pressed between the pages of history books is, by conventional accounts, over. In most of Africa and Asia, it has been so since the 1970s of the last century. Its devolution into neocolonial regimes, dictatorships, and other nefarious and oppressive local governments is a combination of internal corruption and the residual systemic inequities of the colonial era. Physical and political colonization ended, but colonized minds are a different work in progress toward decolonization. And it goes both ways. Empire apologists and defenders of colonization not only exist, but rank today among some of the most widely read scholars, historians, political scientists, and writers. A personal experience I had with one such thinker took place last November at the Dhaka Lit Fest. A writer friend, who’s also a professor, and I met and engaged in conversation with a historian, a white Englishman, who was waiting for the start of a panel on colonization in which he himself was a panelist. By the time our nearly two-hour-long debate ended, he either left adequately warmed up for his session or physically depleted from the exercise with us. His entire argument rested on the age-old and not-at-all-original faith that the empire had not been all so bad because it brought technology to the subcontinent. (I’m unsure what we would have said if he mentioned “civilization” or Christianity and God to savages). When my friend and I pointed out that benevolence was the last motive behind the building of railroads across the subcontinent – at the cost of staggering human suffering – and it was done exclusively to consolidate colonial expansion and designs, it had no effect. The man insisted that we, my friend and I, find some good to pick out of the rubble of empire to truly bow our heads to, or, at the very least, embrace the good over the bad just so it does not all end on a dark and nihilistic note. In other words, the white Englishman needed to feel good. The problem, in short, was us, the burden ours to unpack.
Physical and political colonization ended, but colonized minds are a different work in progress toward decolonization.
Now let me reverse the roles. We, two Bangalis, both born into Muslim families, are arguing with a white Englishman, sitting on his home turf, defending mass murder, exploitation, theft, slavery, rape, and systematic brutality on British soil over white Englishmen and women, done over centuries. Not only would we be shouted down, in today’s heady atmosphere of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant vitriol, we would be called defenders of terrorism, if not outright terrorists. We would be called “uncivilized”; we would be termed “savages” for seeking some good in what was calculated criminal conduct. Here is the rub: In these reversed roles we would likely be apologizing instead of defending – not the same kind of apologizing as the white Englishman, that is, trying to push the white Englishman and his fellow countrymen and women to find the good to be gracefully acceptable out of colonial carnage, but actually apologizing for the behavior of our entire race/religion for the carnage. This has especially been a reality in the post-9/11 world created by the American Empire narrative – to which I will return later – as clerics, imams and religious and community leaders in the US and Europe sprinted to the first press conference they could find, unless they were invited to one or passive-aggressively shamed into being there, following a terrorist attack, (aka an act of violence specifically committed by a Muslim or brown-skinned person), to condemn it and reassure everyone that not all Muslims were evil, that Islam was a religion of peace. Our passions were unabashedly running deep, the same as they would if the topic of discussion had been the Bangla Language Movement or the Liberation War, and the argument before us was that East Bangalis were a bunch of rioting troublemakers over something as small as language, and East Pakistani Bangalis were treasonous miscreants. On August 1947, when East Bengal became part of Pakistan, one era of colonization ended while another began. While an army of occupation would not descend on Dhaka and East Pakistan with full and deadly force until 1969, from its earliest months East Bengal began feeling the weight of inequality. Jinnah’s declaration to make Urdu the state language of Pakistan was an opening salvo that paled in comparison to the barrage of inequities and inequalities that unraveled over the next two decades. Not only did then East Pakistan effectively become a colony of West Pakistan, but also in keeping with “colonizing tradition”, West Pakistan eventually marginalized Bangalis in a racially prioritized hierarchy. Whether this attitude would have developed over time without colonial chicanery being its catalyst, as the conflict between East and West intensified along the lines that eventually led to war and separation, is fodder for another exercise; of relevance is the essential perspective that the wedge between West Pakistan and East Pakistan, between Punjabi and Bangali, and Pathan and Bangali, was a historical product of colonial training. It was part of the race-based project of colonialism that was transferred from its original purpose of subordinating dark-skinned peoples to their white subjugators and reenlisted in the colonized space to create distinctions along religious, communal, and ethnic lines. By the time of the war in 1971, the mentality of West Pakistan’s government and military elite had substantially absorbed the mindset handed down to them – that of the superior ruler based on ethnic provenance, and thus the natural wielders of authority and power over a portion of its population that had to be controlled, if for nothing else but for their own good. Included in this, in colonial fashion, was violence if and when necessary, notably embodied in Yahya Khan’s statement of February 1971: “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” True to his word more literally than East Pakistan’s Bangalis could imagine, Yahya Khan ordered a crackdown on Dhaka on March 25, 1971, after which Bangali identity summarily got linked with the quest to liberate the space for it, Bangladesh. The bridge connecting Bangali identity to Bangladeshi sovereignty was more a gradual construct than the inevitable end result of one steady continuum. Unlike the chicken or the egg quandary, however, being Bangali came first, without the necessity of belonging to Bangladesh. What does that make a person of Bangali ethnicity and Bangladeshi origin that moved to the United States and now holds a passport of that country as well? The easy answer: Hyphenate it all. To what? Bangali-American? Bangladeshi-American? Bangali-American from Bangladesh? Or, as most bureaucratic paperworks offer in one fell swoop in the form of a box to check, Asian (in which I have recently seen a further breakdown to specify heritage of the Indian subcontinent)? There is an easier answer. American. But I cannot claim that no matter how much I have been “given permission” on paper by the United States Customs and Immigration Service and the US Department of State respectively. The age of the American Empire is unlike that of its British predecessor. The United States cringes at the thought of the E word as vehemently as Britain expounded the glory of its imperial might across the globe from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century (not counting Hong Kong, which it officially left in 1997). Colonized peoples under British rule were “members” of the Empire, its sovereign subjects – however racially inferior – whereas Americans of all stripes must do with a mere hyphen between their ethnicity/place of origin/country of birth and American. The only exceptions are indigenous peoples or Native Americans, and African-Americans. In those cases the communities were respectively victims of settler colonists and their expansionist rampage, and enslavement, which provided free labor for the building of the US Republic. The so-called hyphenated American, therefore, is a feeble attempt at drawing a distinction between subject and citizen, albeit with the marked difference that calling myself American will not offend “real Americans” (maybe a few) the way an Indian calling him/herself British or English during the Raj would incense or baffle even the most liberal white Englishman and woman. Identity is complex. Maneuvering it is complicated. Navigating its intricate pathways is at best enlightening, at worst completely confusing, together creating the beautiful place of inquiry. There is no straight line from anywhere to anywhere. There are only pathways, incongruent and numerous, that we attempt to connect. By connecting them we may build as best a bridge as is possible, a long and winding link propped up not by one single feat of engineering but by a collective of multiple inspirations, which most certainly can lead to the same place. Sixty six years after the Language Movement and forty seven since the Liberation War, and continuing, Bangali identity and Bangladeshi sovereignty keep meeting on the bridge of solidarity that takes them from “Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chaii” to “Joy Bangla.”
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. His first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books and his debut novel, In the Time of the Others, from Picador.
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