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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

Reflections on a Visit to Bangladesh

Thursday 2 April 2009, by Ranjan Gupta

My father was a Bengali from East Bengal though he lived most of his life in Calcutta. After the age of ten I have never lived in Bengal and only visited it occasionally. It may sound exaggerated, a bit of a hyperbole, but on my first proper visit to Bangladesh recently I felt I had discovered my identity—what it means to be a Bengali and to be part of a larger Bengali culture. For one who speaks only a smattering of Bengali and had a non-Bengali mother, I never felt I was part of the Bengali mainstream in Calcutta, but in a strange inexplicable way I felt a sense of cultural belonging in Bangladesh. It could be that as an outsider I could see Bengali culture from a distance without seeking to be part of the local society. It could also be the intensity of the Bengali language and culture that draws a person to it in a way it never does in West Bengal.

The Bengali culture of Bangladesh is how an Indian State would be if it was not part of a large pluralistic country and was cut off from other States. It is only by going to Bangladesh and then comparing it to West Bengal that one realises the influence of other Indian regions and the cosmopolitanism that characterises Indian living. But good or bad, Bangladesh is today the citadel of Bengali thought and culture. Western Bengal, once the hub of Bengali intellectual life woven around Calcutta, is today the secondary layer of Bengali culture, if for no other reason because it lacks that conviction and commitment to Bengali life which is quite natural considering it is part of a bigger country with many cultures and languages interacting with each other.

The long struggle of Bangladesh for its language and identity is what makes its commitment so strong. The confidence in its own language made pride change to nationalism. Bangladesh was able to establish a strong national identity around language, culture and way of life which surpassed the bonds of Islam which it was thought would bind it to Pakistan. Religion today is secondary in Bangladesh to language and culture and it takes a lot of self-confidence to do that.

It was that commitment to language that made the British influence virtually minimal in East Bengal. There is no English speaking upper middle class in Bangladesh, no continuation of British influence as in India. Even in clubs, created by the British bureaucracy, Bengalis sit and enjoy their drinks but all the conversation is in Bengali.

The oppression of Pakistan during its 24 years of occupation of East Bengal was much worse than the rule of the British; the English period was a time of enlightenment, the Pakistani period of brutal suppression.

Pakistani atrocities were like another holocaust; there was rampant murder, a planned attempted change of population through widespread rape and a deliberate attempt at removing Bengali language and culture. This when most people were Muslims. Pakistani rule made a mockery of the bonds of Islam—brotherhood was an empty cry. Nowhere has one Muslim country suffered more at the hands of another than in East Pakistan.

Despite the difference of religion the Bangladeshi is closer to the Bengali of India than he is to the Pakistani or any other Muslim nation. There were even some who tried to make Bangladesh an Islamic country, build bonds with the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia but ultimately culture prevailed once again and its pull to Bengal has remained consistently strong. You only know what it is to be a Bengali when one goes to Bangladesh; the pride in language is so strong that not a sign is in English, not an English-Bengali hybridness on television soaps, nothing at all except in Bengali. I certainly have not heard or spoken so much Bengali as I did in Bangladesh.

The strength of Bengali culture (there is no such thing as Bangladeshi culture, it is all Bengali culture) is seen in the relative freedom for those wanting to go to bars and enjoy a drink. You do not hide and drink as in Pakistan or show a permit. The bar of a leading club in Karachi is lined with empty whisky bottles, a sign of the last drink many years ago. In contrast in Dhaka club bars are crowded and full of life. There are plenty of places blaring out pop music and as long as one can afford it there is no shame in having a drink. This does not mean that the Bangladeshi is not a good Muslim; all it means is that his Bengali culture can absorb both religion and way of life. One must salute the Bangladeshi’s confidence in his own convictions. There is little hypocrisy of faith here.

Few countries have had a more cruel birth than Bangladesh, few have suffered so much for their independence. The British division of India was hollow, if not downright false, equating nationalism with religion. In Pakistan there was much hostility to East Pakistan breaking away (the US once again went against the tide, as it had done earlier in Goa, and tried to prevent the independence of Bangladesh) but in the end after immense suffering of millions Bangladesh was born. Poor it has remained but even in poverty there is joy and much pride in speaking their language and practising their culture. Few have done so much for the Bengali way of life as the Bangladeshi, who should really also be called Bengali.

The culture of Bangladesh is essentially the culture of the lower classes. It was first the Moghuls who dominated, then the British and then the so-called ‘aristocracy’ of East Bengal like the Nawab of Dacca—they were all non-Bengalis. The Nawab of Dacca and several other East Pakistanis with their beautiful wives, who were always gorgeously dressed, were from parts of undivided northern India. The Nawab of Dacca was of Kashmiri origin and got his nawabhood for turning over peasant soldiers who had revolted during the 1857 Mutiny. These people lived opulently in Dacca and looked down on the Bengalis. For a good weekend they would go to West Pakistan. The Adamjees, and many other names associated with East Pakistan and thought to be natives, were not Bengali at all. Unfortunately the so-called Indian upper classes interacted more with them rather than the native Bengalis. The Hindu Bengali also in the past, if not the present, has looked down on the people of East Bengal. The West Bengali caught in an antiquated orthodoxy of caste has had little time for the Bengali Muslim. The parochialism, chauvinism and casteism of the West Bengali even today only shows the disdain they once had for the people of East Bengal. Had the Hindu Bengali been more tolerant and less orthodox, the East Bengali may not have gone the East Pakistan way. The Wester-nisation of the West Bengali has unfortunately been only skin deep and by and large the upper castes of West Bengal remain casteist in their outlook. This despite the benefits of a cosmopolitan inter-national city like Calcutta which now has fallen prey to ideological parochialism. It is indeed paradoxical that the Bangladeshi today is more culturally authentic than the Indian Bengali.

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The commitment of the average Bangladeshi to culture rather than fundamentalism showed up in the recent elections when by electing Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party they voted for a modern, liberal government for Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi does not want fundamentalism nor does he want another Islamic power coming in from the back-door like Pakistan. The strong, insular culture of Bangladesh in many ways isolates it in the Islamic world. Its culture is so strong that it can only give limitedly to the Islamic world in way of shared vision and commitment to an Islamic way of life.

Bangladesh is more an entity to itself, it is Islamic but shares little with other Muslim countries. A strong linguistic culture has given it mental autonomy. It does not need Arabic or Turkish books for sustenance. It is intellectually self-sufficient. But that strong culture also isolates it. Not being a pluralistic state it has only itself to fall back on. Bangladesh is culturally isolated in the world but it is confident. It is that confidence that got it independence to practise its own language and beliefs, and it is that confidence in itself that will maintain it as the citadel of Bengali language and thought. Bangladesh will remain a shining example of how a poor people could, in the face of terrible suffering, stand up for their way of life.

Despite more than thirty years of existence as an independent nation Bangladesh has not made its mark on the world. Its foreign policy thinking is dominated by India which surrounds it on three sides; India is physically closer to Bangladesh than any other nation.

But with a strong urban middle class in India, the Indian public is moving away from Bangladesh. There is nothing there for the shortsighted Indian tourist who is looking for the bright lights. Unless of course Dhaka is able to create attractive new tourist packages like Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan Ambassador once told me that Indians for the first time had begun to discover Sri Lanka. Cheap airfares, beaches, and parlours had all helped in this discovery. Bangladesh need not go this way, its treasure remains its culture. Either the visitor takes to it or it does not. The five-star hotels of Dhaka are rather empty but there is the serious tourist. Ones who are there for river cruises, food, and getting to know Bengali culture.

Isolation is part of Bangladesh’s history. When Curzon created East Bengal as a province, British civil servants were encouraged to sell it to the public in India and the UK So books appeared with exotic titles like Dacca: Romance of an Eastern Capital with pictures of mighty rivers and Dhaka as the last outpost of the Moghul Empire which the British were now taking over. Much was made of the Muslim past of East Bengal. Dhaka, then Dacca, was shown to emerge as a rival capital to Calcutta in Bengal. But even Curzon did not appoint a full Governor for East Bengal; it was always under a Lieutenant Governor who with delicate English protocol was addressed as “Your Honour” or “His Honour” rather than “His Excellency”.

Calcutta always eclipsed Dhaka paradoxically till the recent past. Dhaka now represents Bengal and foreign radio and television Bengali broadcasts are beamed more for Bangladesh rather than West Bengal which is seen as an appendix to Bangladesh. Timings for broadcasts in Bengali for the region are Dhaka timings. But there is nothing at all wrong with this considering more people speak Bengali in Bangladesh than in India. Indians should applaud Bangladesh rather than criticise it.

Bangladesh has kept its isolation even as an independent country. Despite several modern embassies like those of Japan, the US, Britain and Canada, Dhaka lacks the air of a major diplomatic capital.

Bangladeshi diplomatic styles borrow heavily from India and Pakistan though more from the latter because several early diplomats were in the Pakistan Foreign Service. These people were articulate because Pakistan took only the most loyal and the best. I remember one such diplomat who rose to become the Foreign Secretary in Bangladesh as my neighbour in Kathmandu many years ago. He spent hours arguing about the virtues of Pakistan’s foreign policy and about his suspicion of India. He even articulated about how India was trying to dismember Pakistan and upset Pakistani stability. I never did meet him after he went to Bangladesh. (I am told he was amongst the last few who changed sides and allegiances.) I am sure as a good diplomat he argued equally vehemently about Bangladesh. Diplomats are something like lawyers, all for a cause and a fee.

Though not high profile diplomatically, this in some ways is linked to the intense singular culture of the country which leaves little place for cosmo-politanism, Bangladesh is the cradle of Bengali nationalism. It could not be otherwise, Indian Bengalis are part of Indian nationalism and if there was to be provincial pride bordering on nationalism, the Marxists of West Bengal quelled it early.

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Bengali nationalism of Bangladesh is not linked to religion, it is rooted today in culture and language. (Nowhere better seen than in a downtown Dhaka barber shop which plays Rabindra Sangeet as men have their haircuts and beardshaves. It is that intensity of culture that surpasses any religious divide.) Even the British were not able to dilute the commitment of East Bengal to their own indigeneous way of life. Dacca never rivalled Calcutta as an international cosmopolitan city. Dacca did not draw crowds in search of a better modern life during colonial days. British Bengal began and ended in Calcutta. Thankfully even the Marxists have not been able to kill Calcutta’s commitment to English institutions which still makes Calcutta unique in India.

Many new generations had been taught that East Bengal was a wild land of mighty rivers. Best visited but not lived in. Who would have thought that the future of Bengali thought and culture would one day lie in the hands of East Bengalis as modern-day Bangladeshis?

In India that culture is under stress. Given the heavy onslaught of North Indian Hindi heartland culture, Bengali language and way of life is getting eclipsed. Take Bengali food; it is now virtually impossible to get authentic Bengali dishes outside West Bengal. Even States bordering West Bengal have lost their closeness to Bengali living. Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Assam are no longer as close to Bengal as they once were. The only exception is Tripura. In a big town like Ranchi it is virtually impossible to find a decent Bengali restaurant when once there were many. In some contrast in a halt on the Bangladesh-West Bengal highway, it is a grand sight to see dozens of passengers eating rice and fish—something now one rarely sees in India, even in West Bengal where dishes can vary from alu poori to anything else. Here everyone ate their rice and fish, after which many went in for a sandesh.

Bangladesh is an enclave country surrounded almost on all sides by India. It is a country where the struggle for independence is still fresh in the minds of the people; there are reminders of death and destruction and it is only in Bangladesh that one realises how bitter was the fight for indepen-dence. It was in the face of insurmountable odds that Bangladesh became free and whatever the differences, the people never forgot that. Indians sometimes do not realise how bitter was the Bangladeshi struggle for their language and their culture. They even broke the bonds of religion for the sake of their language. In these days of religious fundamentalism and terrorism Bangladeshi pride in their language and way of life is unique. They need understanding and some indulgence from India as they struggle to build up their nation.

There should be little pettiness on the part of India. So what if the Bangladeshis want to build a replica of the Taj Mahal? They were not lucky to have had too many historical monuments left to them, even the Lalbagh Fort is in ruins and now surrounded with houses. People need to go out and see things. Did not a town in Arizona, USA, import the London Bridge, stone by stone for a price of $ 2.5 million in 1968? At least the Bangladeshis did not carry the stones of the Taj to build their own monument. The other Taj is located in Sonargaon, a town filled with historical ruins and once the home of rich zamindars—so there is thematic continuity in the building of a monument there and it is close to Dhaka. After all, the British did not complain when London Bridge was carried away for a good price to Arizona, so why are the Indians? Is it that India wants takas from Bangladesh?

This sort of pettiness towards Bangladesh must stop. India had a hand in Bangladesh’s creation, it must now take pride in nurturing it. Nor should Indians ever forget that Bangladeshis admire India, they want to be like India. Most do not know Delhi or Bombay nor do they care, but Calcutta is another matter—every Bangladeshi dreams of coming and living in Calcutta. They love Bollywood films, Bangladeshi girls want to dress like trendy Indian ladies—in a word, they want to live in Bangladesh like Indians. Where else in the world do people emulate Indians?

Ranjan Gupta is the Special Representative in India of CBS News, New York

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