Imagining history

Posted in history by jrahman on August 15, 2008

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.

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8 Responses

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  1. fugstar said, on August 15, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    I love playing fantasy history.

    What if the Abul Hashem inspired ideology of the Awami Muslim League wasnt subverted(1953) by the Sheikh Mujib Group whilst Shamsul Huq (Gen Sec 1949) was in jail?
    What if Pakistan didnt go pro US in 54?
    What if the East Pakistan Muslim League werent such a bunch of tight arses that the post partition Assam and West Bengal contingent had to find some other groove?
    What if in the time of crisis the Moshtaque position was translated into reality rather than the Tajuddin one?
    What if 2nd stage independence was achieved without such acrimony?
    What if we had got Murshidabad and India had got Khulna?
    What if there was no Cyclone in 1970?
    What if non nationalisms were more seriously attended to in the preWW2 period?
    What if Mujibbad didnt include secularism, but something akin to not being nasty?
    What if Subash Chandra Bose and Fazlul Haq were not sidelined by Gandhi and Jinnah, and the eastern armpit of India had won over the western one?

    People constantly reimagine their histories through the narrative lens of the ideas that they like. I feel there are too many warts and crusty bits to go all lib-demo on it. Actually come to think of it the only thing which really makes sense is ‘Its Qadr, now what are you going to do?’

  2. Udayan said, on August 16, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Jyoti – fantastic article.very thought provoking.

    Inspired by fugstar (can it be true?) here are some more fantasy history scenarios in the bengal / bangladesh context. Each one would make interesting chapters in a “what if” book

    1. Partition not undone in 1912
    2. no defeat of Turkey’s caliphate after WW1
    3. Nazrul doesn’t become ill and writes constantly till his death (in India)
    4. Naxalites cause collapse of west bengal govt resulting in anarchy in eastern India just as mujib returns to dhaka in 72 … soviet invasion of afghanistan in 79
    4. no us invasion of kuwait in 1991 (who would have won the election?)
    5. No 9/11 (same qn as 3 for 2001 elections)

    #4 and #5 have implications as well for the development (or stifling) of the liberal Bengali Muslim voice and assessment of history in the last 2 decades

  3. jrahman said, on August 16, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Udayan/Fug, interesting questions that stress that there is nothing inevitable about the way history turned out, and how things can turn out in future.

    Fug, I agree that ‘there are too many warts and crusty bits’ for a liberal democratic narrative to fit exactly, but it still fits more neatly than the tribal-revolutionary stories. I should also stress that the narrative has to be in the vernacular (hence ruling much of the blogosphere out). Mazhar’s revolutionary jive works because it is rooted in the land, and not inspired by dead white men. The liberal democratic story needs a scribe like him.

  4. fugstar said, on August 16, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    ok, try this one

    Sirajadawlah wins the Battle of Plassey, because the french keep their gun powder dry and mir jafar is divinely inspired to not be a total gimp. He goes back to Iraq.

    however the near loss of civilisational mojo exposes cracks in the edifice of the sultanate and it evolves politically and intellectually along better lines. It expands upwards through Assam and Eastwards through Myanmar.

    nobody ever any where says anything about secularism. The area becomes an active participant in the cosmopolitan learning culture of the world, without being hegemonic and institutionalising the most dumb things.

    The entity in the eastern armpit of India sends swamis and shaykhs (real ones) to western europe to bring their systems back towards a more sustainable, non exploitative mode of production and to temper some of the excesses of the enlightenment period. The west learns dialogically from these people. The working classes testify that ‘there is no…..’

    there you go, i just solved climate change.

    Madrassa students come to london, new york and manchester as part of a patronising outreach programme designed to extend access to the less fortunate; to teach the religious, social and natural sciences and languages of their instruction.

  5. Unheard Voices » Imagining history said, on August 17, 2008 at 6:49 am

    […] (More at Mukti) […]

  6. P Munshe said, on August 20, 2008 at 7:01 am

    I really didn’t understand your imagining Narratives, neither the first one nor the second one. You wrote, “The most articulate proponent of this narrative in modern Bangladesh would be Farhad Mazhar”. I wonder, How come the proponent of your second narrative is Farhad Mazhar? Is not it like a bolt from the blue? I don’t want to see you as a campaigner. I want to believe in your intellectual ability, reading your past a dozen post I have this idea that at least you have shown the courage to see in the “first post-liberation government’s Bengali chauvinism”, your history does not starts only suddenly from ’52 er bhasha andolon’, you are interested to go earlier than 1952. But anyway, that is not my focus at the moment. I am curious to know what makes you understand that Farhad Mazhar is a proponent of radical Islam? I believe, it is a serious misreading. However I want to share your reading what makes you like that. May I propose you to refer any article or book of Farhad Mazhar that I can share to have your way of reading?

    I understand your position, the liberal democrat views/narrative; negating the first two views what you wrote as “another narrative”. I have seen as well you don’t feel easy with any revolution. You do not want to see so find even any revolutionary political step or change what so far happened in our society in and around 70’s. To fit with your imagination you want to belittle what Mujib become to us.
    Mujib and his politics have many short coming, as it happens in any political revolution, but he become the symbol of our political identity, new kind of polity, it is true. But unfortunately you reduced to see it as a mandate only, merely an electiony mandate. Why? A big question to me. I was trying to find it through your ‘Liberal narrative’.
    You wrote, “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”. That means, you want us to forget the movement of ’69, LFO and the most important part, which is to give meaning or reality to “mandate” by taking up arms, exert counter power against a fetish power. That is among movement, mandate and arms struggle, you are interested only in ‘mandate’. Not even in the condition which we have created ahead of to organize our general will (which is as equal to a counter State) and express it as a so-called ‘mandate’ (which is nothing but a legal part). Did you ever think what was the practical meaning of that ‘mandate’? Have we got POWER because of the won ‘mandate’? Somebody heard that there may be plenty of sweets in a pantry. But how do we know those are sweets? It become actually sweets as long as it is in your plate. Is not it? To be it in our plate, to become it really sweets we have exerted power, taken up arms against a fetish power. Now I am leaving it up to you to say whether it is a revolution or not, but don’t reduce it to ‘mandate’. Because, The difference is simple, a dalil and a possession. Choice is yours, if you think you are happy with a dalil without a possession, ok, no problem. We understand, you are so liberal a Democrat(?) that you might be satisfied with dalil only, the meaningless choice. But we need both. So hereafter, don’t frame a stupid sentence for us like, ‘….And how did he [Mujib] receive this mandate? Not through an armed revolution, but through the ballot box’.

    However, seeing your imaginary narrative carefully I don’t think that is your actual point of liberal democrat. Your says, “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”.
    That is you mean to say Mujib don’t have the mandate for ‘radical restructuring of the society’. Is not it ridiculous? Radical restructuring of the society means again what you feel uneasy with, afraid of that, revolution? That is why you are cautious in giving meaning to your ‘mandate’? If it is, then you are not even a democrat, nor liberal. I think before understanding you to be a liberal Democrat you should read Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), leader in the English Revolution carefully. See, I am not suggesting you a Marxist or Islami something. But I agree with you ‘it wasn’t an unambiguous mandate for nationalism’ to Mujib. To make myself clear, I mean, Mujib is coined as our appearing as nation, does not mean we have to do nationalism. National liberation movement not necessarily have to be culminated as nationalism. Anyway that is not important point to understand your ‘mandate’. Your next sentence, “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”. I think this is the actual representation of your ‘mandate’, your ‘liberal Democrat’ position. You are giving ‘core’ meaning of your ‘mandate’ in the name of Mujib by reducing it further only as “economic freedom for the masses”. How? By “equality of opportunity for the people of this land”. Now my questions are:
    1. Why the people of this land don’t need POWER to exercise “economic freedom”? Why the people who are not of this land will allow us? 2. Do we need a polity? Who are we? 2. Why only ‘economic freedom’? Don’t we need Political freedom? Without political freedom is there any meaning left for ‘economic freedom’? Can we separate this? Were we struggling for ‘economic freedom’ within the Pakistani repressive State? 3. Don’t we have needed a State? What type of State? How we will execute our ‘economic freedom’? 4. And the big question. Why we are reducing the ‘mandate’ as “equality of opportunity for the people of this land”? What actually mean by “equality of opportunity for the people”? Does it mean,Equal opportunity among businessman and equal opportunity among labor? If it is, Can your Liberal Democrat value not think beyond business? What is actually the ‘opportunity’? Is it true, Mujib and we were struggling for this ‘opportunity’? Against whom? Really I am puzzled! I can’t stand any more.
    Really an interesting imaginary narrative of a ‘Liberal Democrat’ who ends up with ‘opportunity’!

  7. Fariha said, on August 20, 2008 at 9:53 am

    1. What if General Niazi believed in GHQ and did not surrender on 16 December ?

    2. What if Rakkhi Bahini did not buy the bluff of Col Faruq on 15 August and put resistance?

    3. What if the ‘Majors’ did not go abroad and fought back Khaled Musharraf with tanks on 5 November?

    4. What if mutinous soldiers did go back to barracks as ordered by Zia on 7 November?

    5. What if Chittagong rebels fought the troops approaching from Dhaka following assassination of Zia on 30 May?

    6. What if Gen Nasim fought to assert his position against President Biswas during CTG in May 1996?

    7. What if President Yazuddin ordered PGR to arrest the officers who went to Banga Bhaban to request him to declare emergency and leave the position of CA position of CTG on 1/11?


  8. In a parallel universe « Mukti said, on August 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

    […]  For the last couple of years, I dabbled in quackery of alternate history to mark partition (here and here).   They say once is happenstance, twice coincidence, but three times and we have a […]

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