A new nationalist synthesis

Last year, I posted Rumi bhai’s video of Amar Shonar Bangla sung during the opening match of the Cricket World Cup.  I thought the tone-deaf singing perfectly captured the instinctive attachment with the song that most Bangladeshis feel.  But quite a few thought the beautiful song was ‘mis-represented’.  Thankfully, no one has taken me to the courts over this.

Just to be on the safe side, let me begin this year’s Independence Day post with a more harmonic rendition.

It is a beautiful song.  Nothing I say over the fold will remotely match what you’ve just heard.  So feel free to ignore the rest of the post — honestly, I won’t mind.  🙂

For those who’ve decided to take the plunge — this post is a tentative reassessment of my views regarding the role of nationalism in Bangladesh politics.

I explained two years ago why I reject nationalism as a basis for my politics: In … Bangladesh, the language of nationalism leads to a dialogue of the deaf where we question our political opponent’s right to participate in the debate by describing them as anti-liberation or anti-sovereignty.

I am beginning to feel more sanguine about a new nationalist synthesis that goes beyond these caricatures.

As most readers would be aware, there was a cricket tournament in Dhaka recently, where Bangladesh had beaten the world champion India and runner up Sri Lanka convincingly, only to lose by the narrowest of margins against Pakistan in the final.

First consider the final.  After the final ball, silence fell on the stadium, with hardly a soul cheering Pakistan’s win.  If there is a large section of ‘anti-liberation’ (read: pro-Pakistani) Bangladeshis, they forgot to come to Mirpur.  I don’t have the language to express the heartache and emotion on display for the following 24 hours.  But I do dare anyone who had seen Bangladesh and Bangladeshis in those hours to claim, in good faith, that there is any segment of Bangladesh that wishes East Pakistan.

Even more interesting, however, was the aftermath of the match against India, which Bangladesh won.  Now, this wasn’t the first time Bangladesh had knocked India out of a cricket tournament.  In cricketing terms, there was a bigger upset five years ago, when India was sent home in the first round of a World Cup.  And there was a lot of jubilation then.  It’s just that in 2007, there was no political element to the celebrations.

From Bhuban’s men and Mohunbagan against the goras all the way to the Ali and the West Indies, there is a long history of the underdog’s defiance of the imperialist hegemon on the sportsfield underscoring a political point. In 2007, Bangladesh vs India match contained no such political undertone. In 2012, the politics has been unmissable.

Even though, in the year to the 2007 match BSF had killed about five times Bangladeshis as they did in the past year, the atrocity didn’t matter to the Bangladeshi celebration.  There was no posters like this in the virtual and real world.

One might put the increased focus on the BSF killings to a general rise in anti-India sentiment related to the policies and performance of the current government.

But I think such a conclusion will be misleading.  The overtly political undertone of the celebration that followed the Bangladesh-India match was not limited to the anti-Indian ‘pro-sovereignty’ types.  Solidly ‘pro-liberation’ blogs and facebook pages also took part in these politicised celebrations — I was first forwarded the poster by solid Awami League supporter friend who happens to be from a Hindu family.

And perhaps more importantly, even if there is an element of anti-Indianism, there is a lot to applaud in the way the politics has been articulated — this ain’t the anti-Indianism of your grandfather.  I discussed a possible rise of anti-Indianism in January 2011.  I feared that this anti-Indian sentiment would be coupled with a return of overt and brutal communalism.  I feared that we would see a kind of nationalism that was more East Pakistani than Bangladeshi.

I am happy to note that this fear hasn’t quite come true.  By and large, there hasn’t been much communal chest thumping.  No one is talking about a thousand year jihad against ‘the Brahminical hegemon’.  No one wants to ‘liberate Assam’.  This is particularly notable because anyone familiar with India-Pakistan cricket would know that high profile matches are often seen by zealous fans of both sides as the next round of a conflict dating back to the days of Mahmud of Ghazni and Prithviraj Chauhan.

Instead of indulging in that kind of vulgar tribal triumphalism, the politicised celebrations focussed on the most marginalised of Bangladeshis — those who risk their very lives at the border day in day out.  People who celebrated on their facebooks and smart phones couldn’t be further from these wretched of the earth in any material sense.  The only tie that bound them was that of nationalism.

And not a nationalism of calling their opponents ‘someone else’s dalal‘.

Could this inclusive nationalism form the basis of a new politics in Bangladesh?

Let that be the question to ponder this Independence Day.

6 Responses

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  1. উদয়ন said, on March 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    Happy Independence Day.

    1. ” anyone familiar with India-Pakistan cricket would know that high profile matches are often seen by zealous fans of both sides as the next round of a conflict dating back to the days of Mahmud of Ghazni and Prithviraj Chauhan.” Do you really believe, if we were able to measure means and medians of sentiment, the two sides would have the same proportion of zealots / thousand-year warriors, armchair or otherwise?

    2. ” the politicised celebrations focussed on the most marginalised of Bangladeshis “. Nationalism – even the most benign kind (not sure there is a benign kind, but for the sake of argument) frequently seems to blur class when convenient in theory, but rarely in practice. I wonder how many of those flag waving Facebook bloggers would allow these marginalized Bangladeshis into their homes and share in voluntary wealth redistribution. The kind of openness and redistribution that they advocate when they say that border crossing and activity by these marginalized fellow citizens “at the border” should be unrestricted?

  2. Diganta said, on March 27, 2012 at 12:26 am

    My introduction with Bangladesh media was mostly around 2002-2003 onwards and I didn’t see the trend of communal attitudes mixed with anti-India sentiments, or at least it’s not that open. This is in a sense maturity in the country, supporters which reflected probably in the approach of the team as well.

    On the other hand I generally don’t like political relation based cricket, but I know every human being is dragged into the same. I supported Pakistan in the WC final of 1992 but as I knew everything about Pakistan, I probably support them less and less. So, it’s obvious. I believe, Olympics was created in ancient Greece only to direct the inter-state rivalry to sports arena, and avoid warfare. Cricket, at least in the subcontinent, has the full potential to do a similar job.

  3. jrahman said, on March 27, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Udayan, in my observation — which shouldn’t be taken as an authoritative guide to anything — there are probably more Indian zealots than Pakistani. But then again, there are many more Indian fans than Pakistanis. Proportionately, there are probably more Pakistani zealots. On the other hand, Indian zealots tend to be more zealous given they see themselves as reacting to a ‘thousand year old threat’.

    I don’t disagree with your second point. However, I’d note that ‘inclusive’ nationalism need not lead to active redistributive politics. All else equal, an ‘inclusive’ nationalism can lead to increased focus on better governance and increased social mobility — both welcome in their own right.

    Of course, none of this is certainty. The question is, whether it is even plausible in Bangladesh.

    Diganta, Bangladeshi kids 20 years younger than me have Sakib and Tamim to cheer. To a brown high school kid — c’est moi — in a racially tense country reeling from 10%+ unemployment, Pakistan vs England in 1992 was about ‘us vs them’, and 1971 didn’t matter to the formulation of ‘us’. Goes to show how right CLR James was when he famously asked: what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

  4. BDAF said, on November 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Here, here. Not pro-Indian (dalal). Not pro-Pakistani (razzakar). Pro-Bangladeshi (and all that that entails) ☺. Amar Sonar Bangla.

    • BDAF said, on November 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm

      I should probably add, that I think this kind of patriotism (if I can use such a cheesy, if apt, word) will grow the more the country visibly achieves (in a variety of arenas). I think the more you see BD in various finals and the status of the country grows, as such, people will take more pride in it. And provided that happens, I say (tentatively) that this patriotism will be of the more inclusive character (given the general nature of BDi people as a whole).

      It’s not surprising this would occur, given the (relatively) small size of the country and localization factors.

      • jrahman said, on December 1, 2012 at 4:10 am


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