Being Bengali in a divided Bengal

Posted in Bengal, history by jrahman on February 12, 2013

When asked his opinion on the French Revolution, Zhou En Lai is meant to have quipped, ‘too soon to tell’.  I stood in solidarity earlier today, but I echo the former Chinese premiere on Shahbagh.  I find it ridiculous to call it a Square.  I think people calling it a revolution or dawn of Fascism are being a tad bit silly.  But beyond that, as of now, I am observing and assessing.  As Sherlock Holmes might say, it’s not a good habit to hypothesise without sufficient information… actually, I am sure he would say something more pithy and cool, but you get the point — I am not in Shahbagh (or even in Bangladesh), and I am not going to say anything more about Shahbagh until I have more information.

Instead, I am going to note that this is February, the month when Bengali Muslims of an earlier generation discovered their Bengaliness.  This is as good a time as any to write about the articles by Naeem Mohaiemen and Arnab Ray that appeared in the New York Times last November.

Mr Mohaiemen, Naeem (full disclosure: close ally), is a few years older than me, and Mr Ray is likely to be slightly younger.  That means, all of us were born decades after partition.  Ours is the generation that has not known Pakistan in Bengal.  Ours is the generation that has no lived experience of 1971.  Both writers describe what the ‘other’ Bengal has meant to them over the years.  Obviously I can relate to Naeem’s story, but I don’t share his conclusion.  And while I find Ray’s story interesting for its misconception, I do relate to the way his story ends.

Naeem begins with the different memories of partition that people — divided among the communal line — had once upon a time.  For the Hindu families of Kolkata, it usually involved nostalgia: ‘a well-ordered, bucolic life’.  The response from a Muslim of Dhaka might have involved a sense of victimhood in the erstwhile undivided Bengal.  But by the time Naeem (and I) encountered these conversations — usually from people much older than us — Bengali Muslims were not a marginalised community any more, and it became an ‘willful obstinacy to hold on to grievance narratives’.

Then Naeem touches on to ‘what might have beens’ in a united Bengal before moving on to the present era.  He recounts the well known story of how Indian Bengali writers and artists are available to Bangladesh, but Bangladeshis are not allowed over there.  He tells us about a pan-Bengali literary magazine that failed because ‘they’ were treating ‘us’ as inferiors.

I could relate to all of that — I have seen and heard and experienced these things myself.  But I am not sure they necessarily lead to this:

… relationships with West Bengal are the crucial prism for India-Bangladesh relationships. …  in 2011, when the body of a refugee girl, Felani, hangs on a border fence after being shot by Indian border security, the figure of the “illegal Bangladeshi migrant” is too dehumanized for West Bengal to pay attention. As West Bengal’s attitudes toward Bangladesh shifts from nostalgia to suspicion, so too does that of India.

Firstly, Felani’s hanging body was first depicted by that bastion of West Bengali chauvinism, the Ananda Bazar Patrika.  More importantly, is it true that it’s the West Bengalis’ attitude toward Bangladesh that drives the views of the rest of India?  India may have followed Bengal a century ago, but is that still the case?

Let’s see what Mr Ray says.

He begins with his school day memories of being told about ‘better Bengalis’ from across the border who take pride in their language and culture.  He begins with being told about a great Bengali past that now lives on in the other side.  And then he tells about things changing somewhere down the track.  His generation, when grown up, found themselves increasingly comfortable in Hindi, while ‘the assertion of a new political narrative in Bangladesh, one that recast its fundamental identity in more Islamic terms’ became less appealing.

That’s interesting.  Obviously I am in no position to judge the accuracy of the changing zeitgeist Mr Ray describes.  The thing is, the timing of the evolution of sentiments is, well, all wrong.

Mr Ray heard about the better Bengalis of the East ‘in the late 1980s and 1990s’.  And obviously his generation has entered adulthood since then.  Well, Bangladesh had asserted a place for Islam in its nationalism project much earlier than Mr Ray’s childhood.  If anything, late 1980s was the time when the official nationalism was least ‘secular and inclusive’ and there was little popular alternative.  That was the time when Islam was declared a state religion, the Liberation War of 1971 was officially being downplayed, independent Bangladesh saw communal violence for the first time, and military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts was at its worst.

Since then, both the official and popular nationalisms have seen an increasing focus on Bengaliness.  Pohela Boishakh has  become a mass event.  Everyone wants to appropriate a piece of 1971.  Even during the early 2000s, when the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami shared power, Bengali culture continued to flourish — Habib, Arnab and Anusheh came to prominence around then.

Anyone remotely familiar with Bangladesh would not say that Bangladesh is less Bengali today than it was a quarter century ago.

But then again, Ray’s (and my) generation of Indian Bengalis may well not know, or care, about Bangladesh or its Bengaliness.  To quote him:

This generation was less hung-up about Bengali pride. Even more importantly, influenced by the predominantly nationalistic narrative of popular media, the new India-Bengalis began to consider any kind of cross-border identity as being fundamentally unpatriotic.

If Indian Bengalis do not care much about Bangladesh, why should their views affect the thinking of India’s foreign and security policy establishment?  That establishment, with its diverse set of players, presumably sees Bangladesh through the prism of its own pre-occupations — may they be about the security threat emanating from Pakistan, or continental rivalry with China, or something else.  But it’s not likely to be a faded nostalgia in a peripheral state of the Indian Union.

That is, contra Naeem, relationships with West Bengal probably matters little for the Indo-Bangla relationships.

I say probably because neither author actually touches on the mercurial politician currently ruling the Indian state.  Given the fractious nature of Indian politics, she may well end up being a key figure in New Delhi.  Given the sorry state of affairs she has got, Bangladesh bashing may well play a big part in her electoral strategy, provided this stuff matters to her rural and semi-urban constituency.  But this is not something either author explores.

Mr Ray’s equation of the new generation of Indian Bengalis with a certain class of Kolkata people is particularly telling.  It was similar attitudes that precipitated partition in the first place.

Nonetheless, I do like the way Ray ends.  Referring to a Bangladeshi Muslim friend, he says:

In our conversations, we both avoid that which may be considered contentious. Instead we discuss the real issues that affect both of us — the best places to buy Bengali fish in the Washington, D.C., metro area and the selection strategies of Kolkata Knight Riders, Calcutta’s Indian Premier League cricket franchise, which I support and in which the Bangladeshi national hero and talented all-rounder Shakib Al Hassan plays.

Yes.  I think pan Bengali bonhomie is probably useful for finding good places to buy fish and discuss cricket.  It’s perhaps best that geopolitics is left out of it.  No good can come from anything that looks like tinkering with the map.


12 Responses

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  1. sujon said, on February 12, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Jyoti, I follow your blog and I like your analysis. I was looking for your take on the Shahbag Jagoron but you are surprisingly silent on this. Why?

    • jrahman said, on February 13, 2013 at 11:47 am

      I think any analysis of an event like Shahbagh requires one of the following two. Either one needs to experience it first hand, and can write about it. Or one needs to allow the events to play out and take a detached, analytical view. I don’t live in Dhaka, so the first is not an option. And I don’t want to offer platitudes on something I don’t fully understand.

      • Shafiq said, on February 14, 2013 at 4:49 am

        I think your stand ranks of intellectual cowardice. Not experiencing firsthand is not stopping hundreds from shooting off their mouths at every chance. In this day and age, when you can read from all perspectives instantly, you may have a better broad view of the movement than many who are actually spending most of the time in the sit in.

        And to let events play out is the hallmark of cowardice. Hindsight evaluation is fantastic but off little use. Anybody can do that. I understand your trepidation. In this emotionally charged times, it may be futile to talk rationally. Still, don’t play safe. Come out and lets have a conversation. Events may prove you to be a great seer or a great fool but at least not a coward. Think this as a time like ’71. Of course things now are not quite black and white like that time but still this may be a crucial juncture. You may regret later that you remained silent at this time.

      • jrahman said, on February 14, 2013 at 8:15 am

        So shooting one’s mouth off without appreciating the nuances is intellectual bravery? It’s not trepidation. Had that been the case, I would have simply gone with the flow.

        This is not economics where I can look at some data and apply a theoretical framework to make a prediction. And this is not something that’s happening in a far away place like Egypt where my opinion matters litte. I’ll regret it a lot more if my less-than-informed ramblings have unintended consequences.

  2. Shafiq said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I didn’t want to provoke you. I am sorry if I was intemperate. But I am somewhat baffled by your refusal to initiate any consequence, however small, through your words. This is politics, not economics, and your right to participate in dialogue is as strong as any.

    There are nuances in the Shahbag movement and that’s why many are looking for frank discussions. The widespread response from general people within the country and around the the world has shown that our deeply divided people is still animated by some unifying strands of national consciousness. On the other hand, the people at the center of the storm can and may try to channel this well spring to directions that may yet prove typically divisive.

    This can be a watershed moment in our political dynamics.

    Or, well! We can just wait for few weeks and see how the movie ends.

    • jrahman said, on February 15, 2013 at 8:13 am

      Not intemperate at all. Always good to have robust discussion. Yes, my right to participate as strong as anyone else’s, but so is my right to abstain.

      In general, any politics worth anything is bound to be divisive. And if people in Shahbagh are channelling it to any particular direction, I would say they have earned the right to do so. Where they want to take it, and whether they will succeed — these are the things I am unsure about. Hence the silence.

  3. Diganta said, on February 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Let me hold the line and post on the topic. 🙂
    The feeling that was expressed by Arnab Ray is probably shared by a lot of Kolkata Youth. But you missed the point why they have such conclusion.
    Most of these people has never visited Bangladesh but as mentioned, they had a picture in mind. They try to match it with the Bangladeshis they see in USA, UK or may be in Australia. The Bangladeshi diaspora is probably not a very good representative of Bangladesh. For example, in Seattle, we have two Pohela Baisakh programs. One follows the religious principles and the other one is secular. You can easily conclude which one I am invited in :). However, when I am in Bangladesh, I feel comfortable in most of the programs and those mostly resembles the secular program organized here.
    The problem that Arnab-s have is that they have never been to Bangladesh. (But a lot of his Bangladeshi counterparts get a first hand view of West Bengal since the tourist traffic is still almost one-way – strange but true ) All these above are not my views and I brought them up just to explain you the psychology. I am being asked to explain how Bangladesh is in my Indian circle quite a few times and I see a huge gap of ideas between those who visited Bangladesh and the others who derive their idea through the prism of diaspora.
    I personally concur with you that Bangladesh is far more Bengali now that it was a couple of decades back.

    • jrahman said, on February 20, 2013 at 3:49 am

      An Islamic Pohela Boishakh programme? I wonder what exactly do they do there?

      Yes, in general the Bangladeshi diaspora is not particularly connected with the fastly changing ground realities of Bangladesh. And interacting with the diaspora community (itself quite heterogenous, with the Australian/Canadian communities being quite different from the older British community, and the Gulf community is very different, and I think in America there are multiple communities in the same city) gives a very incomplete picture.

      I was thinking of a Bangla post on 21 February covering some of these issues, but it’s hard to do with Shahbagh in my mind. So Bangla post will have to wait, and will write about Shahbagh instead.

  4. BanglaRebel said, on February 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    From Naeem Mohaiemen’s article:

    In 1971, Kolkata’s deep empathy for millions of Bengali war refugees streaming across the border from East Pakistan pressured the Indira Gandhi government to intervene in the war.

    He’s kidding, right?

  5. […] Jyoti Rahman: Being Bengali in a divided Bengal […]

  6. […] Jyoti Rahman: Being Bengali in a divided Bengal […]

  7. Look to the West | Mukti said, on May 25, 2014 at 7:17 am

    […] was interesting that in their NY Times articles, neither Naeem Mohaiemen nor Arnab Ray spent much time on Mamata Banerjee.  I hope future analyses […]

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