Amar Shonar Bangla
A trip to London isn’t complete without a visit to the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. About a year ago, when Bangladesh was sleepwalking towards 1/11, I happened to be in London. One Sunday, after a tour of the Hyde Park, I met up with some family friends at a Deshi eatery in the Banglatown. One of them asked if I had spoken at the Corner. I said no. She said she sang there when she first visited London. When I enquired what she sang, she replied: Keno? Amar Shonar Bangla!
Of course she’d sing that, what else would it be, what else would I have sang (no, make that recited, I can’t sing) if I did anything at the Speaker’s Corner? Those of us born in free Bangladesh tend to identify instinctively with Amar Shonar Bangla — along with the green-and-red flag and shapla — irrespective of differences in religion, class or political opinion. And yet, there is no clear articulation of why we should. While we tend to feel our Bangladeshi identity, seldom do we think what it means to be a Bangladeshi, and there is little clear articulation of what kind of a state our People’s Republic should be.
Tagore wrote Amar Shonar Bangla in 1906 as a protest against the first partition of Bengal. The partition created a new province of East Bengal and Assam — consisting largely of today’s Bangladesh and the Indian northeast. At the risk of oversimplification, Muslims supported the scheme while Hindus opposed it — the curious reader can find out more here. The scheme was annulled in 1912. As the song protests the partition scheme, it could not have been very popular among Bengali Muslims. Another protest song of the era, Vande Mataram, was very unpopular among Muslims because it was about ridding Bengal, and India, of Muslim ‘invaders’.
In Vande Mataram, the land is identified with the Mother Goddess, and of course veneration of the Mother Goddess is contrary to the fundamental tenet of Islam. As it happens, Amar Shonar Bangla also compares Bengal with the Mother. To the early 20th century Bengalis, Hindu or Muslim alike, the Mother meant the Mother Goddess. But unlike Bankim Chaterjee, the author of Vande Mataram, Tagore did not explicitly link his nationalism with Hindu iconography. In fact, he was acutely aware of the way the anti-partitionists alienated the region’s Muslim majority. In his 1916 novel Ghare baire (At home and the world), Tagore shows a Hindu leader — played by Soumitra Chaterjee in the 1984 Satyajit Ray adaptation — forcing Muslim peasants into boycotting British goods even when local goods were much more costly, the local peasants had no stake in the leader’s cause and even when the leader himself couldn’t give up British cigarette. In his later years, Tagore urged for Hindu-Muslim amity. But we know that this was not to be. Bengal was partitioned again in 1947, this time with the acceptance of both communities. And no one sang Amar Shonar Bangla in the 1940s.
Of course the story doesn’t end there. The eastern half of Bengal became Pakistan’s eastern wing. By March 1948, first rumblings of Bangladesh’s nationalism could be heard in the form of the language debate. In the early 1960s, Bengali intellectuals and cultural activists defied government bans on commemorating Tagore’s 100th birth anniversary and celebrating Bangla New Year. By the end of that decade, people started discussing the economic viability of an independent East Pakistan.
The land as the Mother, but quite clearly not the Mother Goddess, was a central theme in the cultural iconography of the Bangladesh movement. The Shaheed Minar symbolises a mother with her children, for example. In early 1971, nationalist students chose Amar Shonar Bangla as the Free Bengal’s national anthem, and when the war ended, the new republic’s constitution endorsed it. Why did they choose the song? For that matter, why did they choose shapla as the national emblem? And how did they design the red and green flag?
I arrived in Dhaka a day before the January potporiborton. There I put these questions to people who were at the thick of events in March 1971. I was told that the song was chosen because of its evocation of the rural landscape — mango groves and paddy fields, perennial features of Mother Bengal. And that’s what the green in the flag meant to the more radical students, though for others green symbolised Islam. It’s not clear why shapla was chosen, but it was stressed that everyone was very conscious about choosing inclusive icons.
This contrasts sharply with the cases of our neighbours, whose nationalist symbols were/are not very inclusive. Pakistan Movement adopted the crescent, unsurprisingly alienating all non-Muslims in the lands that became Pakistan. Indian nationalism claimed to be inclusive, espousing secularism as a fundamental value. But Gandhi’s Ram Rajya did not appeal to Muslims, nor did the spinning wheel, which everyone thought symbolised eternal — that is, pre-Islamic — India (quite ironic, really, as according to Irfan Habib, the earliest known reference to the spinning wheel in South Asia is a 1350 polemic urging Raziya Sultana to give up Delhi’s masnad and take up spinning, the ‘inescapable inference’ being the device having a Muslim provenance).
Compared with the crescent and the spinning wheel, shapla, the greed-and-red and Amar Shonar Bangla were much more inclusive. I’ve already said how we, born after December 1971, quite naturally identify with them. From all accounts, most people in the country struggling to become free in 1971 identified with these symbols.
Most, but not all. There were the Urdu-speakers who migrated to the country during and after Partition. They had no future in the Golden Bengal that the Mukti Bahini was fighting for. Even among Bengalis, not all liked these symbols. For the supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami — a party that has consistently polled 5 to 10 per cent of votes in every election since 1970 — Bangladesh’s nationalism was and perhaps remains a betrayal of Islam. Many from the generation that remember the decades leading to Partition identified Amar Shonar Bangla with a Hindu-chauvinist Congress — even as they supported an independent Bangladesh, they were apprehensive about the direction the new state would take ideologically.
As early as 1976, with the damage wrought on Dhaka by the Pakistani tanks and Indian bombers still to be repaired, senior members of the military junta then ruling the country raised the possibility of changing the national anthem. And as late as 2000, intellectuals associated with the country’s then opposition coalition voiced the same idea. That coalition, which included Jamaat, was elected to a five-year term in late 2001. For all the talk of revisiting the country’s foundations, the song remained untouched.
But what do these symbols symbolise today? We all feel instinctively Bangladeshi — that’s why we come together after a calamity like Sidr, that’s why we celebrate Ashraful and Yunus, that’s why we agonise over the latest piece of political uncertainty, and that’s why many of us come to these pages. But dear reader, what is it that we instinctively feel? What does it mean to be a Bangladeshi today? What kind of Bangladesh do we want?
At the hour of India’s independence, its first Prime Minister said, ‘We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.’ We didn’t have the luxury of gaining freedom through a constitutional assembly. The equivalent speech in our history was one of defiance against a brutal occupation. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get a goose bump listening to that speech after all these years. But even after all these years, no other speech has that electrifying effect. Nearly 36 years after gaining freedom, there has been no expression of a vision of what Bangladesh should be, what we Bangladeshis should aspire to be.
And that’s why we find ourselves divided between self-proclaimed ‘nationalist’ and ‘pro-independence’ camps. That’s why a creeping military takeover can get away with claiming to start history afresh. That’s why people try to blatantly rewrite the events of 1971. That’s why kangaroo courts jail people for participating in non-violent protests.
But who says we have to wait for a politician to tell us why we are who we are? Dear reader, why do you consider yourself Bangladeshi, what does the country mean for you, what do you want the country to become, why do you sing Amar Shonar Bangla?
(Based on an A-A-A post from March 2007).