As a nation that fought a bloody and ruthless war to assert its cultural identity, what does Pahela Baishakh mean to the Bangladeshi Bangalis in the 21st century?
Bangladeshis are a confused and confusing bunch when it comes to the question of defining its cultural identity. Religion and culture intermingle constantly and the conflict between these two creates widening gaps between different groups. Initially after the British Imperialists colonised the Sub-continent, Muslims, who had just lost power to them, had refused to learn English, and stuck to Persian and Arabic. Hindus, on the other hand, collaborated with the colonisers, and Muslims, in general, lost out on their share in the power structure.
Many Muslim converts, descendants of low-caste Hindus only a hundred years ago, leaned more and more towards a culture that remained alien even to themselves. For around 200, date-trees, deserts and minarets epitomised Muslim culture in this part of Bengal. Some even took up surnames like Sheikh and Syed just to deny their Hindu past. In fact, to get popular vote, Sheikh Hasina, leader of a supposedly secular Awami League once boasted that her ancestors came from the Middle East as Muslim saints. Bangali Muslims' insecurity is tied to denial of the past, and it has been haunting them since the conversion of faith. Bangalis' search for finding the roadmap for its culture lies in the painful struggle between their past and the resulting insecurity.
The division of Bengal in 1905 first made Bangali Muslims aware of their cultural presence on this land. Though it was meant to divide the Bangalis who had become a thorn in the flesh for the Raj, Muslims in this part of the volatile province first realised that their interest did not lie with the predominantly Hindu west.
Division of Bengal was, however, scrapped later; and to compensate the Bangali Muslims, a university was set up in Dhaka in 1921. Interestingly Dhaka University (DU), which was a result of Bangali Muslims' cultural and political aspirations, later contributed to the spread of secular values in this part of the Sub-continent.
After the establishment of Pakistan, from the Language Movement of 1952 to the Independence war, DU remained on the forefront of East Pakistani Bangalis' struggle for cultural identity.
Bangalis, who overwhelmingly voted for Jinnah's Two Nation Theory, got a jolt when the Pakistani ruling class refused to recognise their mother-tongue as one of the state languages of the newly independent country. It was during the Pakistan era that the Bangali Muslims first tried to excavate its root that it had lost to an otherwise alien Arab culture. They started to celebrate Pahela Baishakh and Choitro Shonkranti en mass, and the Pakistanis viewed this as a revival of Hindu culture in them.
In fact, in the run up to the Liberation war, it was as if the Bangali Muslims truly believed they had discovered their cultural root in secular Socialism.
Though, one of the major reasons of it was the conflict of interest between Bangali and West Pakistani bourgeoisie, the emergence of Bangladesh has also proved that religion alone can bind a country together only for the time being. Thus the people who endorsed the formation of Pakistan 24 years ago took up arms again to break it.
The situation, however, has changed immediately after Independence. From day one, the newly emerging Bangali ruling class started to use Islam as a tool to hold its grip on power. Horseracing was banned; Sheikh Mujib's Awami League, which led the country towards independence, soon put an embargo on cabaret and gambling to keep the country in tune with religious values.
The trend to make Bangladesh more Islamic continued during the military rule that followed. Ziaur Rahman dumped Secularism and Socialism; Ershad, Zia's predecessor, soon followed his footsteps like an overzealous convert. Ershad made Islam the state religion and a law was enacted which required citizens to get a license to drink alcohol.
This so-called Islamisation of the country has gained a new momentum since the restoration of democracy in 1990, through a mass upsurge that witnessed the fall of Ershad's corrupt and autocratic rule. The subsequent governments that came after Ershad's fall, have, in fact used Islam to reap political dividends.
A Pahela Baishakh celebration on Ramna Green was bombed in 2001; both the BNP and AL governments have so far failed to nab any of the culprits. Even the Punjabi ruling class, who during the forlorn days of Pakistani rule saw the programme organised by Chayanot as a Hindu-ploy, had never dared to bomb it.
It was, in fact, the so-called Islamisation of the country that has contributed to several bomb blasts that have ripped through some cultural and political gatherings in the country in the last 13 years.
Besides this ever-growing tendency to mix religion with politics, secular Bangla culture is facing another menace: Satelliteculture. As it has happened before, big cultures influence its smaller counterparts and change the latter forever. Post-communist Imperialism is thriving to establish a monoculture, where the brand names are the new demi-gods, where one's value in the society depends on one's purchasing power.
The Khans, who now determine what middle-class Bangali men will wear, do not belong to the Khanshenas that the Bangladeshis so fiercely fought to get independence from. The Parvati, whose latest chiffon makes every middle-class Bangali woman go crazy, is not from Indian mythology either. These demi gods and goddesses adorn the Bangali's idiot box and influence their lives.
Another cultural expansionism, meanwhile, has been going on. The 13 small nationalities that have been staying in the South eastern part of the country were advised to become Bangalis in 1973. Ironically the people who gloriously fought for their mother tongue have denied these indigenous people the same rights-- their languages are not constitutionally recognised. History repeated itself when they took up arms for their political and cultural rights. Ziaur Rahman's government made small settlements in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where hordes of poor Bangalis were lured to build their houses. Subsidised food and clothing were given to these people, who were used as a buffer between the Army and Jhumma people. Ironically, the Pakistani occupation army used the same techniques against the Bangalis during Bangladesh's Liberation War. Though a treaty was struck a few years ago between the government and indigenous people, peace remains an elusive dream.
Bangalis' quest for their cultural identity, too, remains as problematic as ever. The onus is on them to find what they really are. Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure, it cannot lie in mimicking an alien culture the way their Bangali Muslim predecessors did during their futile attempts to become more Muslim than Bangali during the time of the Raj.
April 14, 2005