The first general election in what is now Bangladesh took place in 1937. People, well about 10 per cent of adult population, voted for the legislative assembly of the British Indian province of Bengal. Elections were held under communal electorates. Indian National Congress became the largest party, but it fell well short of a majority. More importantly, it performed very poorly among the Muslim majority of the province. Muslim seats in the assembly were divided between AK Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party (KPP), HS Suhrawardy’s Muslim League, and independents, with KPP having the most seats.
KPP and Congress were both committed to secularism (by which they both meant pluralism), and Mr Huq expressed an interest in forming a coalition government with Congress. Provincial leaders of Congress were keen on the idea, but it was vetoed by their all-Indian leadership. Huq formed a coalition with the League. Within three years, he would be moving the Lahore Resolution. Within a decade, Bengal would be partitioned. What if Congress had taken up Huq’s offer?
Perhaps a pluralist government in Calcutta would have proved that Hindus and Muslims can co-exist peacefully? Or perhaps communal tensions would have doomed any such government from the beginning? Perhaps we would have seen an indpendent Bangladesh of some form much earlier than 1971? Perhaps a Bengal-wide revolutionary movement would have emerged?
Historical what ifs are fun parlour games, and of coure, have no right answer. As much fun as it is, instead of imagining what might have been, let’s think about how we have imagined our national identities over the past few generations. Note the plurals here – Bangladeshi / Bengali Muslim / Muslim / Pakistani / Bengali / Bangal / Ghoti / Indian / Hindu – it’s not always clear where one ended and other commenced, and all too often we have not even bothered to remember the mariganalised communities who might not want to identify with any of the labels mentioned.
All successful politicians in our history appealed to one or more of these identities at some point in their career. Most of our intellectuals and thinkers, artists and writers, filmmakers and poets have paid homage to one or more of these labels. Even when our opinionmakers imbibed some internationalist ideology like Marxism or political Islam, their expressions were rooted in one of these local, tribal, identities.
And so we have come to imagine Bangladesh in exclusivist terms, where some people have a privileged position and others need to integrate, whether it is stated explicitly or assumed implicitly. Thus, some imagine Bangladesh to be the national homeland of the Bengali Muslim nation to which all non Bengali Muslims should integrate. Others imagine Bangladesh as the national homeland of the Bengali nation. Therefore, not only should non-Bengalis integrate into the Bengali identity, Bengalis outside Bangladesh should also pledge allegiance to it. Yet for others Bangladesh is the national homeland of eastern Bengalis, who are different from western Bengalis, independent of their religion, and non-eastern Bengalis should integrate … you get the picture.
Let’s add to the what if mentioned at the beginning of the post. What if Jinnah had said that Bangla would be one of the state languages of Pakistan? What if Ayub Khan had a heart attack in 1955? What if Pakistan had won the 1965 war against India? What if Sheikh Mujib made a deal with the Pakistani generals? How many other what ifs can we think of? How many answers can we give to each question? How long is a piece of string?
We can spend a lot of time imagining historical what ifs. But if we analysed our history without nationalist imaginations (‘imaginationalism’?), we would see that Bangladesh is a product of complex set of historical accidents. Our borders are what Lord Radcliffe left us with. We became independent at the time and manner we did because of a set of (mis)calculations by key players. Things could very easily have been different. Nohing about our existence as a sovereign nation was historical inevitability.
All that said, history has given us this territory that we call the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Can we imagine a history that is reasonably true to what actually happened over the past century and does not rely on some form of tribalism and exclusivist notions for Bangladesh?
Turns out that we can. Turns out that at least two such narratives exist. One narrative goes like this: Bangladesh was born out of a revolutionary war that sought to create a classless exploitationless society. That revolutionary war was waged by ordinary soldiers, university students, industrial workers and peasants. It happened after a revolutionary uprising in 1969. And Bangladesh is heir to a tradition of uprisings going back to the 19th century if not earlier. The rebellious nature of the people of Bangladesh, in some imaginings of this narrative, also include a radical Islam that rejects any kind of nationalism but provides the foundations for a just state and society, where the rights and responsibilities of everyone – believer and non-beleiver, men and women, rich and poor – to each other and the Almighty are clearly demarcated. The most articulate proponent of this narrative in modern Bangladesh would be Farhad Mazhar.
But there is another narrative. That narrative goes like this: Bangladesh came into existence because of the conscious decisions of people of this land to create a political order where governments are accounatable to those governed, an economic order that gives everyone the equality of opportunity, and a society that allows free thinking.
Unfortunately, very few people tell this story. Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t have a Farhad Mazhar.
But I contend that this story is more in line with what has happened in Bangladesh over the past century than any other narrative going around. When people of this country wanted to end the zamindari system, when they protested the imposition of Urdu, when they demanded that their taxes and export earnings not pay for someone else’s war over a distant hill, when they opposed religious fanaticism, I contend that they did so for those fundamentally liberal values.
To support my contention, I refer to two memoirs. One of them is by someone who witnessed the political changes of this land first hand, someone whose family members are among the famous and powerful in today’s Bangladesh. Another one is of a relative nobody who has spent his entire life in the mofussil. But both Abul Mansur Ahmed’s Amar dekha rajniti’r 50 bochor and Jatin Sarkar’s Pakistaner jonmo mrittu dorshon argue that the political evolution of the British Bengal to Bangladesh was about representative government, economic freedom, and progressive society.
This is not to say that tribalism in the form this or that nationalism wasn’t present. But they both reject those tribalisms. That’s why Mansur Ahmed worried that the first post-liberation government’s Bengali chauvinism was reminiscent of successive Pakistani government’s use of Islam. That’s why Mr Sarkar noted wryly that people who in 1970 screamed about a thousand year old Bengali nation were more often than not the same ones who waxed lyrical about the glories of Islamic civilisation a few years earlier. And neither even mentioned Mr Mazhar’s revolutionary ideas!
And if those memoirs don’t suffice, let’s think about the most successful politician in our history. Mujib won as clear a mandate as one can get in politics in 1970s. What was the mandate for? Certainly not for a radical restructuring of the society. And without denying its role, it wasn’t an unambiguous mandate for nationalism. What the mandate was most clearly for, what was at the core of Mujib’s platform, was a message of equality of opportunity for the people of this land, of economic freedom for the masses. And how did he receive this mandate? Not through an armed revolution, but through the ballot box.
We don’t have to imagine a liberal democratic narrative. It is the most truthful account of our history.
Cross-posted at UV. This post combines an idea I had to mark partition with an email exchange with a fellow blogger on Mujib. I recommend the following posts on our partitioned cousins and the founder of our country.