Heroes, villains and ideas

Posted in history, music, politics by jrahman on December 15, 2007


Bangladesh is marking its liberation from Pakistani occupation this weekend.  And a few weeks from now, Indians will celebrate the founding of their republic.  During these weeks, TV channels in that part of the world play patriotic tunes.  This post is about two such songs — both about the land and gold — and how they display a betrayal of a fundamental tenet of each nation’s foundation.

Let’s start with the Bangladeshi song Shona shona shona.  The song says the land, mati, of Bangladesh is better than gold, and under this land sleeps many heroes: Rafiq, Shafiq, Barkat, Titu Mir and Isa Khan.

Who are these heroes?  Rafiq, Shafiq and Barkat were killed by the authorities during the language riot of 1952 — a milestone moment in Bangladesh’s nationalism.  Titu Mir defied the East India Company and organised a peasant revolt in the 19th century.  Isa Khan was a Bengali chieftain who resisted the Mughals in the 16th century.

Notice how all of these heroes are Muslim men?  Bangladesh was supposed to be a secular people’s republic.  The song was written in the late 1960s, when the ethos of secularism and a progressive society were at the mainstream of Bangladeshi politics.  And yet, the song didn’t include Surya Sen or Pritilata Waddedar (Chittagong-based militant revolutionaries killed by the Raj in the 1930s).

The Indian Republic of course has the word secularism in its official name.  But you wouldn’t know the supposedly secular nature of the republic from one of the most played song on Indian channels in the week preceding its anniversary in January.  The song Mere desh ki dharti proclaims that the land produces gold and diamond, and India is home to these heroes: Gautam, Nanak, Gandhi, Subhas Bose, Tagore, Hari Singh Nalwa, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Bhagat Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru.  So, the pantheon of Indian heroes includes a fascist and a warlord, but no Muslim or women.  We didn’t expect Noor Inayat Khan to be honoured, but surely the Rani of Jhansi or Tipu Sultan deserves a mention.

Both Bangladeshi and Indian songs are from the 1960s, a time when overtly communal politics seemed to be on the wane in our part of the world, a time when women’s rights were being recognised by the society at large.  And yet, two very well known songs of that era, listing the respective nations’ heroes, failed to find a place for the silent minorities that make up the majority of those nations.

And today, four decades hence, the very ideas of secular liberalism are under threat in our part of the world.  In Bangladesh, villains who committed genocide in their fight against those ideas in 1971 became resurgent.  In India, villains who committed genocide in 2002 to turn India into a Hindu state are gathering strength.

Secularism, liberty, equality of opportunity between genders, these ideas are worth fighting for regardless of nationalism or historical divisions.  Indeed, this blog believes, without any equivocation, that these ideas are more valuable than tribalism or dispute over real estate.  This December, or this January, when we hear patriotic songs, let’s think about these ideas, and dedicate ourselves to them.

Cross-posted at A-A-A.


5 Responses

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  1. Syeed said, on December 15, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Reminds me of two mostly debated issues of school-time childhood:
    a. who is a better poet, Tagor or Nazrul?
    b. which one is a better ant, black (muslim ant!) or red (hindu ant)?

    Have you ever heard the poem, “Nazrul tumi korecho vul, dari na rekhey rekhecho chul”?

    Those were childhood talks… but I wonder who passed those debates on to child-minds!

    If you see BTV’s Nazrul-geeti or program on Nazrul’s life, you will only see one portrait of Nazrul being used for the stage… a Nazrul with a “tupi” (hat) on his head!

    I repeat a previous question, what the rulers thought when they wrote in the Bangladesh Constitution’s Preamble that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah … inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in the war for national independence”?

    I think its not so much about being secular, its about being objective. Bangladesh did not get independence for religion. Isn’t it the opposite? Pakistan was created on the basis of “two-nation” (read two-religion) theory… but was separated on the basis of “two-economy” notion!

  2. bitterboy said, on December 16, 2007 at 6:41 am


    You questioned correctness of the part of the constitutional preabmle about religious spirit tried to be instilled in it. You are very right when said of two-economy notion. I will rather say we were seperated by the struggles of who will rule? and why our most foreign currency bills from jute and tea would be allegedly siphoned to the west wing of pakistand?

    But the truth is that constitutional preambles are just something oranmental formal thing, not the life-lines of constitutional laws. Likewise the other wrong was inserted the in the Swadinatar-Ghosanapatra of Mujib-Nagar exile government where it lied about the declaration of independence by Sheik Mujib at the Zero of 26th March, 1971.

    So that preable has no practial significance. Just as Bath ke Bath.


  3. Syeed said, on December 16, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Preamble is ornamental alright. But does it have to be fake? If you read Jyoti ‘s post and then read the preamble… you will see that the choices were made intentionally, and the politics behind it was rather bitter!

    But even if I think of it as simply as you put, then why the ornament have to be “imitation”, not pure? You talked about inclusiveness in the previous post. Now see the Preamble of US constitution to see what an inclusive Preamble means-

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    Actually, we are becoming so habitual in telling lie that a serious lie at the first page of Constitution seems very right!

  4. shamshir said, on December 18, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    A bit of a made-up controversy, no, the one about the songs? I think to prove your point, you have to show that our patriotic music systematically discriminates. I am not sure that this is true.

  5. jrahman said, on December 18, 2007 at 8:04 pm

    Shamshir, my point is that even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, secularism and progressive ideas were not really internalised by our mainstream politics. That is why a song like ‘Shona shona shona’ “one of the earliest of songs broadcast by the clandestine radio station” (see this article in the Bijoy Dibosh edition of the Daily Star: didn’t mention women or non-Muslims and no one noticed. And as the Indian song shows, this was the case with our neighbour, which has a stronger tradition of secular democracy. I don’t think the songwriters/singers/listeners set out to discriminate anyone, but the very fact that they did discriminate and no one noticed speaks volumes methinks.

    Now, Shwadhin Bangla Betar did play tunes that appeal to liberal internationalism. Here is one: Mora ekti phool ke bachabo bole juddha kori – our fight is to save a flower, a smiling face, a new poem, a good movie, the world peace. That is more like what I identify with.

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