Being Bengali in a divided Bengal
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.