Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

The Completion of Partition of India

From the early part of 17th century, the great news about India’s wealth and affluence started to spread far and wide and invariably it reached the Western ears. The West was, of course, the centres of political and military might of the world at that time. Although India’s population was about 10% of world population, its economy was more than 30% of world’s GDP, taking the whole of Western economy into consideration. The amazing quality of muslin fabric in Dhaka, the exotic aromatic spices of South India, the evocating flavour of Assam tea etc were great attractions to the Western explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers and, of course, colonizers.

The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and latterly British fortune seekers and colonizers all started streaming in various guises at various ports of India, Sri Lanka and even beyond into Indonesia and so forth. But the golden goose of India was the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India) where wealth was fabulous, people were generous, mild-mannered and hospitable. But the provincial administration was ridden with selfishness, sycophancy, antagonism and conspiracy; in short, it was simply in dysfunctional state. On top of that, the Moghul Empire at the centre in Delhi was just crumbling down. The European fortune seekers and colonizers could not dream of a better set of conditions to fulfil their ambitions than in India.

The East India Company of Britain started their stall in Calcutta in the 17th century as a simple trading post for import and export of various commodities. As they made jaw-dropping profits and their economic and political powers grew much bigger for their boots, the British government took notice. Moreover, when America managed to tear itself away from the British hegemony, Britain turned its attention towards the East. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (the 1st Indian War of Independence) when the British colonizers just managed to hang on to powers by the skin of their teeth, the East India Company was nationalised urgently and India was taken under the British Crown and it became officially a British colony in 1858 CE.

Fast forward nearly a hundred years and come to the turbulent period of 1940s, when World War II was ravaging and tearing apart the very fabric of human society and civilisation, Britain as a major combatant had no option but to agree to grant freedom to the people whose support she needed badly at that time. America also had been exerting tremendous amount of pressure on Britain to decolonise its territories. After the end of war in 1945, Britain started to decolonise in earnest and in great haste.

In India, the poison of sectarian division had been sown for decades, if not centuries, first by the petty bourgeoisie administration and then firmly by the British Raj to ‘Divide and Rule’ the country. The Hindus and Muslims had been told that they were totally different people, different race and different culture. It played very nicely at the hands of opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians and rulers, although the great national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders took a somewhat different stance. They asserted that the Muslims and Hindus in independent India would live in self-governing states based on democratic principles. But that that did not assuage the fear of the underclass Muslims being overwhelmed by the Hindu majority or the Hindu superiority. The political leaders of the Hindu majority did nothing to dispel such fears of the minority community; on the contrary they were rather flaming the fears.

The two communities started drifting apart ever since Allama Iqbal proclaimed his sectarian Two-Nation Theory (TNT) in 1930, where he envisaged the creation of a separate Muslim State in the North West part of India for Indian Muslims. Only as an after-thought Iqbal said years later that there was no reason why Bengal should not join the Muslim State. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not keen to have a separate Muslim State at the beginning, but under Iqbal’s persuasion and, to some extent, due to antagonistic attitudes of some communal Hindu politicians, he gradually drifted towards separate two-nation-state idea.

However, when at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League (ML) in 1940, the creation of a Muslim State, called Pakistan, on the basis of two-nation theory was adopted, the partition of India was virtually sealed. Communal feelings ran high throughout the whole of India and sometimes they boiled over into communal riots. In the 1946 provincial election in British India, the creation of Pakistan was a matter of patriotism, self-preservation and religiosity all rolled into one for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in the province were mostly landless farmers, day labourers and contract workers. So, they took the election as an opportunity to seek emancipation from not only the British colonial yoke but also Hindu dominance.

The election was also taken as a new dawn for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslim League got nearly 95% Muslim seats (114 out of 119 of all Muslim seats) in Legislative Assembly of Bengal. That was the best performance of the Muslim League in the whole of the country. Although 114 seats out of the Provincial Seats of 250 were not the majority, but they were the overwhelmingly dominant group.

Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a student leader, was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and was associated with Husain Shahid Suhrawardy, a very prominent leader of the Muslim League from Bengal. He went to Sylhet with about 500 students from Calcutta to campaign for Pakistan before plebiscite in that district of Assam. The election result was the outcome of emancipation of dispossessed and landless farmers who had been promised to be made landed farmers.

Things started moving at break-neck speed after the Provincial Election in 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared on 20 February, 1947 to give independence to India within two years. On 3rd June 1947, British government formally accepted the division of British India into India and Pakistan. However, nobody, not even the top leaders like Jinnah and Nehru had the faintest idea on 3rd June what the two countries would look like. Communal riots broke out throughout the whole country due to uncertainty. This vagueness had created a grave chaotic situation and aggravated the plight of people who suffered tremendously during the partition. Hindus in their millions moved from anticipated Pakistani territories in one direction and Muslims from Indian territories moved in the opposite direction and anger spilled over these moving migrants!

The British government washed its hands off from all responsibilities for the peaceful transfer of power and oversight of proper partition of the subcontinent under the guise of its commitment to transfer power as soon as possible. On 17th August 1947, the first batch of British military troops set sail out of Bombay for home. Both India and Pakistan had been left on their own devices to slug it out.

But the province of Bengal (the then East Pakistan) where the British East India Company first set its foot some 200 years ago was in much disorientated state. It joined up, albeit on the strength of the provincial election in 1946, with another province (in fact, four provinces in West Pakistan which were later merged into one) which was some 1500 miles away, separated by an enemy state (as per Pakistani version). There was no common tenuous bondage between these two provinces except only religion; everything else like culture, language, attire, attitude and even race were different. The state of Pakistan was simply huddled up on the outcome of an election, which was based on emotion and centuries of pent-up injustices on the Muslims, and from undue haste of the British colonial masters to depart.

Within one year of Pakistan’s independence, in 1948, the severe fault line appeared when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka, East Pakistan that Urdu would be the national language. But by far the majority, nearly 55%, of the whole country’s population was Bengali speaking and Urdu was spoken by less than 20% of the population. So, what was the justification for Urdu to be national language other than sheer subjugation of East Pakistan?

The Language Movement ensued in 1952 when police opened fire on unarmed university students and killed eight of them, when they demanded Bengali to be the national language.  Ever since that time, West Pakistan tried to kowtow the Bengalis into total submission and keep them as the underclass in the country. The Punjabis of West Pakistan started dominating by sheer military strength all spheres of activities in life – economy, education, employment, the civil service, sports and so forth and worst of all, they were conducting organised campaign to wipe out the Bengali identity by disenfranchising Bengali and to force people to learn Urdu. When Britain withdrew in 1947, Pakistan became the de-fact colonial power over East Pakistan and started exploiting with even more ruthlessness than the British.  

Independence Day 2018: London rises for Bangladesh liberation war 1971

Pertaining to Bangladesh liberation war, 1971

The independence for Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) in Bangladesh did not come about until 16th December 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and became a sovereign independent state. So, it can truly be said that there was a hiatus of 24 years for the Bengalis. The process of independence, which started on 14th August 1947 when the British Crown hurriedly left the scene without fulfilling its colonial obligations and responsibilities, did not come to completion until the 16th December 1971. Then and only then the true partition could be said to have been completed.  

  •   Dr. Anisur Rahman (a nuclear scientist) is an author and a columnist and
  • Dr. Jadabeswar Bhatrtacharjee (a medical doctor) is a freelance writer.


Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Secularism in Bangladesh: The troubled Constitutional pillar

The ubiquity of the word “secularism” (it is mentioned in more than 75 of the world’s Constitutions as an ideal the State promotes, or an organising principle that it affirms), and the passionate discussions it generates throughout the world, sometimes distracts us from the fact that its origins are relatively recent.

It was only after the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries; after the bloody inter-denominational conflicts in Europe, or the clashes between ecclesiastical and temporal authorities, which eventually led to the sovereignty of the State (occurring between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815); after Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between Church and State”, and Voltaire’s “privatisation of religion” found a welcoming environment in the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, did the idea of secularism become well entrenched in European literary and political consciousness. The English writer George Holyoake was the first to use it in a systematic manner only in 1851. It was during the French Third Republic (1870-1940) that it was declared to be the “defining ideology of the State”.

Not only is it a relatively new concept, it was also delimited by geography. It was essentially a European phenomenon, both in terms of the intellectual tradition that generated it, and the military conflicts that necessitated it. Hence for the rest of the world, which did not share that reality, it was a foreign concept where its relevance was dimly understood, its meaning fuzzy, its embrace clumsy.

It may be argued that the idea of “democracy” is similarly alien. But democracy was easier to explain, it animated the anti-colonial struggles, and it was reflected in some concrete practices and institutions that were identifiable and populist. Secularism was not. But, more importantly, while democracy did not challenge deeply held commitments and values, secularism problematised the core of their belief systems, and sometimes even their identity. It should be pointed out, as Karen Armstrong has done, that the notion of “religion” understood in the West, is subtly but substantially different from what the Arabic word “deen” or the South Asian word “dharma” connotes.

It was expected that the road to secularism would be rocky in South Asia, perhaps more so in Bangladesh. There were pre-existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims (mitigated to some extent by Sufi teachings, some syncretistic cultural practices, and the moral economy of the peasantry) which were aggravated by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 that conflated class and religion and sharpened earlier divisions. There were the machinations, and sometimes the confusions, of the British. There was the emergence of a middle class in both communities (a little later, and weaker, for the Muslims) which led to a competition for political power and economic favour from the British, and provoked the self-conscious exploitation of religion, the creation of the dreadful “other”, and the divergence of the faith communities. And finally, there was the Partition of India in 1947 which appeared to confirm the primacy of faith as the very basis of personal and national identity.

Nonetheless, its journey in independent Bangladesh began in some optimism and apparent clarity. The constitution of 1972 unambiguously accepted secularism as one of the four foundational pillars of the State. This was entirely expected. This followed the logic of linguistic/cultural nationalism that had challenged the earlier Pakistani formulation, as well as the defeat of the Pakistani military which had pursued an overtly religious agenda. They lost. While the other pillars, such as democracy and socialism, were going to entail further negotiations and struggles, this issue, it was felt, had been settled. That confidence was seemingly misplaced.

Secularism was not killed with Bangabandhu’s brutal assassination in 1975, but it was dealt a crippling blow. The subsequent leadership did not pursue this ideal with the courage, commitment or the charismatic authority that he had represented. Religious groups and leaders, who had remained defensive and tentative initially, were allowed and, at times invited, into the political arena, gradually began to assert their presence, eventually emerged as critical players in bargaining-based and alliance- oriented “democratic” arrangements, and steadily pushed back against earlier secular guarantees. Even its location in the constitution became far less settled than had been originally assumed.

In fact, the 5th amendment (1979) removed secularism from the constitution, and the Divine invocation (Bismillah-Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim) was inserted at the beginning. By the 8th amendment (1988), Islam was declared the “State religion”. In 2005, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th amendment (not on the religious question per se, but on the unconstitutionality of the Martial Law that had been promulgated and hence all laws, acts and amendments passed at the time were deemed to have been automatically nullified). In 2011, Part II, Article 8 of the 15th amendment restored secularism as a fundamental principle of State policy, and Article 12, Part II specifically indicated the elimination of communalism, the non-privileging of any religion, or any discrimination based on faith. However, in Article 2A, Part I, Islam was retained as the State religion, and the invocation remained unchanged. Thus, the constitutional position of secularism became a bit murky.

The increasing influence of the religionists was reflected in other areas as well. First, in education, Prof Abul Barkat reported that between 1970 and 2008, the number of alia madrasas increased from 2,721 to 14,152, and the number of qawmi madrasas went up correspondingly. By 2015, the government indicated the existence of 13,902 qawmi madrasas (though, largely because of definitional imprecisions, some estimates could be several times higher).

Moreover, in 2017, the qawmi madrasas, which had always resisted any government interference in terms of academic substance, quality or control, was able to get its Dawrah degree recognised as equivalent to an official MA degree.

These forces, spearheaded by Hefazat-i-Islam, were also able to influence the curricula of the official education system. In 2017, as many as nine chapters were quietly deleted from school textbooks (which included contributions from Lalon, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sarat Chandra, Satyen Sen, Humayun Azad and Rabindranath Tagore) and substituted them with more religious-minded pieces (from Shah Ahmad Sagir, Alaol, Golam Mostafa, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Habibullah Bahar). Similar other texts were added. Further changes were demanded and remain under consideration.

Second, such groups, and others emboldened by them, carried out various acts of repression and violence against religious minorities. Odhikar (a Human Rights based organisation), reported that between 2007 and 2019, 12 people belonging to minority faith communities were killed, 1,536 injured, seven abducted and 19 raped, while 62 pieces of land and 40 houses were grabbed, 1,013 properties and 390 temples were attacked, and 889 idols damaged or destroyed. It should be pointed out that the victims were mostly Hindus, but also included Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadiyya adherents. Minority organisations report numbers that are understandably higher.

A large number of minorities have felt compelled to leave the country. According to the official census reports published by the government, in the 1951 census (i.e., after the early exodus forced by the Partition), Hindus were 22 percent of the population of East Pakistan. By 1961 it had come down to 18.5 percent, by 1971 to 13.5 percent, by 1991 to 10.5 percent and by 2011 to 8.5 percent. Some of this may be partly explained by economic and family factors, but it would be quite implausible to deny that the atmosphere of threat and vulnerability they faced did not contribute to this migration.

Third, these groups have also been successful in creating an intimidating environment that has caused a “chilling effect” on free speech. They have assassinated secular and atheist writers and bloggers, attacked teachers and editors, and threatened artists and performers on the pretext that their religious sentiments and sensibilities had been hurt or offended. Even the suspicion or accusation that someone had done so may lead a Hindu principal of a school to be forced to do sit-ups in front of an entire assembly of students and citizens, or a person being burned to death.

The Digital Security Act vastly expanded the arsenal of weapons available to the politically or religiously hyper-sensitive. With its sweeping generalities and lack of clarity about the meaning of “religious sentiments” or what constitutes being “hurt” or “offended”, legal harassment was added to public humiliation and physical attacks as a relatively safe and seductive tool in the service of intellectual and religious intolerance.

It must be pointed out that the most serious and worrisome challenges to our democracy do not come from wild-eyed, bomb-throwing fanatics who can attack a cultural programme celebrating the Bengali New Year’s Day and kill 10 people (April 14, 2001), cause more than 400 simultaneous explosions in 63 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh (August 17, 2005), or slaughter 28 people, including 17 foreigners in an upscale Dhaka restaurant (July 1, 2016). These are dramatic and dangerous manifestations of Jihadi militancy. But, they can be, and have been, largely contained. The much greater threat, more insidious and more far-reaching in its consequences, is the creeping advance of religionists in the country through a process that has been deliberate, organised and strategic.

It must be emphasised that there is a distinction between the concepts of being “religious” and becoming a “religionist”. The first refers to a commitment to personal piety, rigorous practice and spiritual salvation, the second indicates an interest in attaining political power, dictating government policy and dominating the public discourse. The first is perfectly compatible with secularism, can embrace modernity and scientific progress, and peacefully co-exist with other faiths and persuasions. The second is skeptical of science, judgmental about other faiths, and ready to retaliate against any questions about their own. Secularism is integral to, and a precondition for, democracy, while religionist absolutism is a threat.

This does not mean that secularism automatically ensures democracy. History is replete with examples of very secular authorities being cruelly illiberal and authoritarian. This only refers to the fact that unless there is tolerance for other ideas, respect for other faiths, acceptance of questions and criticisms, openness to science and evidence-based enquiry, trust of the will of the people (and not merely the assertions of dogmatic clerics) to make right decisions and judgments, and a strict separation between the private sphere of individual faith and the public space for civic engagement—unless these “secular” values and practices are upheld, democracy cannot be sustained.

The secularist argument, hence democracy itself, has been under considerable stress. The anxieties and uncertainties created by technology and global dislocations, the increasing inequalities everywhere, world-wide conflict particularly the instabilities in the Middle East (and the feeling that Islam is under siege), and the corruptions and inefficiencies in so many countries, have all contributed to a widespread skepticism about the West, a hostility to its traditions and examples, and a turning inward among Muslims.

Reinforcing this anti-secular backlash here has been India’s unfair and selfish pursuit of its interest (in relation to Bangladesh), and the increasing bigotry and viciousness it has displayed against Muslims. Moreover, financial patronage and Salafi indoctrination flowing in from Arab countries provided support and direction to the religionists. Finally, the stereotypical dismissal of religious people as backward, misogynist, violent, one-dimensional and unpatriotic has been arrogant, counter-productive and polarising. Instead of helping the cause of secularism and democracy, it has only strengthened its enemies.

But, more importantly, the leaders of supposedly secular parties in Bangladesh have probably been complicit in creating this Frankenstein. It is not a question of apportioning blame, as the parties are now childishly doing. Almost all parties had probably tended to this poisonous plant (perhaps some more readily than others), and helped it to flourish through compromise and accommodation.

It may be argued that compromise is part of the democratic process, and hence should be supported. But compromising what, and with whom, is relevant. This was the fatal fallacy of the (in)famous policies of “appeasement” pursued by the Allied powers in dealing with Hitler. Throughout the 1930s he consistently violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles—building his armed forces, remilitarising the Rhineland, stopping reparation payments, reuniting with Austria through the Anschluss, and finally claiming the Sudetanland (at that time a province of Czechoslovakia). The Allied Powers, desperate to “secure peace for our time” once again, gave in. Hitler not only occupied the province, but the entire country. And then he demanded Poland, and invaded it in 1939. World War II, preventable earlier, became inevitable.

“Appeasement” was destined to fail. To a bully, a compromise is a capitulation. It does not make the problem disappear, it only encourages the next demand. The religionists kept on steadily advancing their agenda (affecting the constitution, education, public policy, free speech, etc). The parties in power did not confront them. In this sense, our “Sudetanland moment” was perhaps the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the High Court premises. That crucial “victory” may have paved the way for the unimaginable and unforgiveable audacity of the religionists in defacing Bangabandhu’s sculpture in Kushtia, and demanding that none others be built.

If we care for Bangabandhu, the spirit of our Liberation War, our obligation to our own constitutional principles, and our commitment to democracy, we must be bold, decisive and resolute to protect secularism in order to consolidate democracy. A Faustian bargain with the religionists may provide political gains that are illusory and temporary, but moral losses that are substantive and permanent. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who forsake their constitution for the sake of power, deserve neither.

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus at Black Hills State University, USA.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious

Cultural and National Identity

Most of us have differed often enough with one another on what precisely constitutes culture. That is hardly surprising in view of the fact that it is common for even erudite philosophers to disagree and debate with each other on the raw definition and nuances of culture. The way we perceive culture is very much a mirror of our philosophy in life and of our view of the society we live in. It is but natural that we differ. But does it really make any material difference to a society on what exactly a culture is or on what a particular cultural guru enforces the cultural attributes of a society at a particular point in time and space?

Culture is more like the free-flowing water in a river. It takes on the colour of the alluvium soil it flows over at any particular moment. Culture of a people is anything but static; it changes, it merges, it meanders, it evolves like the life on earth.

The so-called Calcutta Book Fair fiasco had prompted certain coteries of vested interest to make mountain out of a mole hill. At the forefront was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had donned the mantle of the keeper of Muslim Bengali culture. It had self-proclaimed the distinctiveness of Muslims to create a separate identity for Bangladeshi culture.

The party was founded by a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh or Bangla nation. But the Kakul trained former Pakistani army officer who spoke Bangla with a distinct Urdu accent, due to his long stay in the western wing of Pakistan, ultimately took on the role of a Trojan Horse. When he assumed the charge of independent Bangladesh in the aftermath of a series of coup d’etats and assassinations (which many people claim may have been through his acquiescence), he took upon himself the task of rebuilding the nation in the model of “Pakistan.” Thereby, he failed to live up to his glorious deeds during the days of blood and thunder. The unholy coalition that he forged with the religious right had made him to rehabilitate those hated anti-Bangladeshi forces in the independent Bangladesh. It brought back the ghost of Pakistani oppression in Bangladesh.

The Bengalis in Pakistan had made sacrifices to found a modern state based on secular ideology. The Sufi tradition had deeply influenced the Islam in Bengal. Its tolerant ethos was a far cry from the religious intolerance of West Pakistan that would later spawn into Taliban movement.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was a struggle against the hard-line exclusivist tradition of West Pakistan that was trying to supplant the liberal tradition of the eastern wing and turn it effectively into a colony. Under the guidance of the Pakistani junta from the west, the Islamist parties made it their goal to eliminate religious minorities and to discard the secularist strands from the composite culture of Bangladesh. They cried “Islam is in danger.” to garner supporters for their invidious goals.

It was a national goal in certain quarters during the Pakistani era to erect a psychological barrier between West Bengal and East Bengal in the guise of championing the cause of Islam. There was a crack in that barrier for a brief period during 1971-75. But, after 1975, for the next two decades, that barrier was restructured and reinforced to mirror the prejudices and predilections of the past. The master architects of that barrier were the Pakistan trained officers of the Bangladesh army who continued to look back to the pre-liberation days towards Islamabad for political inspiration.

The balance of power in Bengal in the era of Permanent Settlement had indeed tilted disproportionately in favour of the Hindus. The 1947 partition did serve to restore the balance. But it can just as easily be argued that East Bengal got rid of the over-lordship of the local Hindu zamindars only to embrace the colonial shackles of West Pakistan. Furthermore, it was demanded by its new masters to sever all ties with “Hindu” West Bengal with which it shared many common cultural heritage and where at least a quarter of the population was Muslim.

The Bangabhumi of yore was today’s East Bengal. It had always been the core of Bengali language and culture. West Bengal was the Rarhbhumi which was part of Greater Bengal and had, till the coming of the British, looked up to East Bengal for cultural inspiration and sustenance. So, in a sense, Bengal’s cultural heritage had its root in East Bengal. The proponents of Bangladeshi nationalism had their own agenda. It was to erase West Bengal from the canvas of Greater Bengal with a view to turning Bangladesh into a puppet in the hands of Islamabad’s rulers, who would only be too happy to use Bangladesh as the cat’s paw to further their own interests.

Then there were those who had vested interests in declaring, “Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of Bangladesh are two distinct peoples; they have absolutely nothing in common” Inevitably, proponents of this delinquent ideology ignore the cultural affinities of West and East Bengal to emphasise only on religious differences. That was the only way they could erect a barrier between the two Bengals. But even that was not easy because a quarter of West Bengal’s population was Muslim. Would the religious fanatics disown Poet Nazrul Islam because he was from West Bengal?

There are some differences between the inhabitants of the two Bengals. But it is not simple to cut off West Bengal from our cultural canvas on the basis of these differences. Religion, ethnicity, dialect, and regional characteristics, all play an important role in defining our cultural ethos. It is as disingenuous as it is dishonest to try to define it in terms of religion alone.

Consider the regional component, for example. The immigrants in Calcutta from East Bengal, from long before the 1947 partition, had indulged in their regional pride by cheering for the East Bengal team on Calcutta’s football fields. And to this day they continue to do so. It pleases them no end when East Bengal defeats Mohan Bagan. The Islamists in Bangladesh
will be hard put to explain this exultation in the football fields of Calcutta in terms of their mindset of seeing everything with religious lens.

Region-based differences indeed seems far more significant than religion-based ones. A Muslim Bengali from West Bengal is likely to feel more at home with a Hindu Bengali from West Bengal than with a Muslim Bengali from Bangladesh. The age old Ghati-Bangal issue has always transcended religion to give primacy to geography instead.The cultural tradition of the subcontinent kept apart the Hindu migrants from East Bengal to India from the Hindu natives of West Bengal. Even some half a century after the partition of India, Calcutta newspapers continue to conspicuously mention the ancestral roots of prospective brides and grooms in matrimonial columns. One may attribute that to the discriminatory practices of the natives or to the exclusivist practices of the immigrants. But the fact remains that ancestral district can come in the way of tying matrimonial bonds between the Hindu natives and the Hindu immigrants in West Bengal. In fact, even among the Hindu immigrants themselves, a Baidya from Jessore or Bikrampur might find it beneath his dignity to have matrimonial ties with a Baidya from Sylhet or Comilla!

Many a nation state in the world exhibits regional variations in dialect and culture. The regional dialect and the local customs give the nation a “salad bowl” cultural milieu. Thus, Bavarians in Germany have the image of hillbillies. After the reunification of Germany, the people from the former East Germany were often perceived by their newfound compatriots as third worlders! Belgium and Switzerland have people speaking different dialects and even entirely different languages.

In USA, the Mecca of multi-culturalism, people speak of the East Coast, the Mid West or of the deep South with very specific cultural connotations. Let me narrate a personal anecdote. I took a speech course in an American college. During a discussion session, one student was frank enough to admit to her cultural bias based on regional accent. She told the class that Jamal has a non-American accent which is okay with her. But if she hears somebody with a southern accent, she seems to struggle with the thought that the person is of inferior intellect!Most religionists in Bangladesh take a victimological stance to justify their prejudices. They blame the arrogance of the Hindus from West Bengal or of the Hindu zamindar of yore from his own East Bengal for their antagonism toward all Hindus. But if they were honest enough, they would have readily admitted that there could be just as much a tradition of arrogance among the Muslims of Bangladesh. For many years, educated Bengali Muslims inhabiting the central part to the north western part of Bangladesh were extremely reluctant to enter into matrimonial ties with people from Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet. Similarly, many
Chittagongians and Sylhetees never could harbour the thought of marrying “foreigners.” I know of people from Noakhali who feel ashamed to disclose their roots. Many of them feigned to be from Comilla or Chittagong to get accepted by the Dhaka-centric “Bhadrolok” culture.

I was still a school kid when my father got transferred to Chittagong. It was a big cultural shock for me. I was afraid that I would never master the Chittagonian dialect, which is significantly different from the standard Bengali language. To my relief, I finally learnt to not only understand the local dialect but even speak in it after a fashion. A few years later, my father was transferred to Sylhet where I stoically withstood the scorn of my classmates who called me a “Bangal.” Needless to say, it was a pejorative. It was then that I learnt that the Sylhetees considered themselves to be from Assam. They were telling me that they did not think I was worthy of being a friend because I was nothing better than a “Bangal.”

I am sure I will have far less of a cultural shock if I visit Nadia in West Bengal. If I visit the Calcutta metropolis, I may cross path with some Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims alike) who may turn out to be somewhat different. But I doubt they will find me as different as I was found by my Chittagongian and Sylheti classmates. But then I have to bear in mind an
important aspect of social anthropology – many a person I will befriend in this old city have had the advantage of a college education and of urban living for many more than a generation or two. So, there is bound to be some difference between them and those I had encountered in Chittagong and Sylhet who were of rural background and may have belonged to the first generation in the quest of college education.

Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. The original article was published on March 19, 1999 in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH in its Commentary Section.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Political

Well done, Sir!

Dhaka trafficThe The on-duty police officer pleads with a flag-carrying car on Hare Road on June 6. The photo was shared on the ‘Traffic Alert’ Facebook Group. COURTESY: SHAMOL JAHANGIR HUSSAIN.On-duty police officer pleads with a flag-carrying car on Hare Road on June 6. The photo was shared on the ‘Traffic Alert’ Facebook Group. COURTESY: SHAMOL JGIRIN

There are iconic pictures that sometimes capture an age, define a moment in history, exemplify beauty, tragedy, or joy, in ways otherwise impossible to evoke. Who can forget the naked, screaming Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm attack on her village in 1972; the Chinese man standing in lonely defiance in front of a column of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in 1989; the Times Square kiss; or the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima, heralding the end of WWII?

The picture published in The Daily Star on June 7 on Page 3 of a police officer pleading with a flag-bearing car to not go the wrong side of the road certainly does not have the same drama or historical resonance. But it is remarkable nonetheless for it not only portrays the exemplary integrity of the officer but also reveals a subtle but stark truth about our political realities. The first gives us hope, the second makes us cringe.

We can be justifiably proud of the fact that an officer could, on his own cognisance and authority, exert the supremacy of law and insist that even the privileged classes follow the standard procedures established for everyone else. This is most reassuring. Moreover this took place in a posh area. The people who live or visit here are the ministers and secretaries, power brokers and high rollers, the insiders and deciders. This is where wealth and power seduce each other, and remain locked in intimate, if illicit, embrace.

These are not people used to hearing the word “no”, or being stopped, or being told that they are engaging in an illegal act, or being made to feel accountable for their actions, or (heaven forbid) being asked to correct their behaviour or reverse their decisions. Power in Bangladesh is usually defined, and often expressed, as the ability to flout the law and face no consequences, or as Erich Segal had put it in Love Story in a slightly different context, “never having to say you are sorry.”

Thus, driving on the wrong side of the road becomes a metaphor of our political times. It is an “in your face” raised middle finger which indicates both an entitlement that is casually assumed, and an attitude that is sneeringly demonstrated.

The reason the picture acquires such enormous significance is because it contradicts our typical experiences and expectations. We are not generally used to the rule of law being duly respected and publicly enforced. In these matters we are more likely to being disappointed and, sometimes, outraged. We read of the increasing numbers of extrajudicial killings in the country where those entrusted with enforcing the law take upon themselves the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner all rolled into one. We also see pictures of stricken family members holding up photographs of people who have “disappeared”.

Some of these supposed “victims” in both groups are/were presumably horrible individuals who deserve to be removed from our midst. But, no amount of public anger and frustration about supposedly “bad people” can, ever, justify the suspension of the human rights and liberties guaranteed in the constitution. We must never forget that the concept of democracy entails a nation governed by law, not a nation governed by “men” (however well-intentioned the latter may be).

The public confidence in the rule of law is also a bit shaken by the lack of enthusiasm in bringing the full force of the law against the high and mighty. There are the bank-swindlers, the land-grabbers, forest-cutters and water-polluters, the money launderers, the drug kingpins, the local “investors” who park their money in dodgy deals and shady holdings abroad, the real estate scammers, the tax evaders, the corrupt contractors offering shoddy work at inflated prices, and the ubiquitous “gatekeepers” of the rentier state who command its resources and extract payment for services to which citizens have a right. These people are not particularly concerned about being “caught” and, in fact, flaunt their (mostly ill-gotten) wealth in rude and taunting swagger.

Moreover, the citizens see inordinate delays in the investigation of crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. In the last several years alone the murders of young Taqi in Narayanganj, college student Tonu in Comilla, journalists Sagar and Runi in Dhaka, and many progressive bloggers and social media activists, remain shrouded in ambiguity and confusion.

Crimes against women and minorities are particularly vulnerable to foot-dragging and seeming indifference. The attacks on temples and ashrams, or communal violence in Ramu in Cox’s Bazar, Shantia in Pabna, Nasirnagar in Brahmanbaria, Thakurpara in Rangpur, or Longadu in Rangamati, have not seen much prosecutorial headway. Similarly, of the 4,541 allegations of rape brought to the much-vaunted one-stop crisis centres over the last 16 years, only 60 have been found guilty. And when one is both a woman and “indigenous” (e.g., Kalpana Chakma who was abducted in 1996), the wait for answers can be long and cruel.

The clogged and sluggish nature of the legal system was revealed in the law minister’s own statement in Parliament in January 2018, when he indicated that there were more than 3.3 million cases pending in courts, with more than 476,000 in the High Court Division and 16,565 in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. More importantly, almost a million cases have been languishing for more than five years. Not only does this provoke the old dictum of “justice delayed is justice denied” but it also indicates a court system almost overwhelmed by the pressures put on it.

There are also some public concerns about the use of law enforcement agencies as partisan instruments serving the agendas of particular governments, rather than as autonomous institutions serving the interests of the State. Cases may be initiated or withdrawn because of political considerations (even indemnifying entire classes of crimes committed at certain times), and judicial orders may, at times, be held in abeyance. In an unprecedented affront to the Courts, it is even possible for an individual, who had been duly charged, convicted and sentenced for a capital crime by the legal system, to receive a political pardon and then be spirited out of the country in the cover of darkness.

But this litany of criticisms and complaints should not blind us to the fact that most law enforcement personnel are generally honest, dedicated and competent. They toil in thankless, often dangerous tasks, are usually overworked and underpaid, and receive little appreciation even when they take huge risks and make personal sacrifices to uphold the principles of law and justice. Moreover, the system has to contend with a colonial legacy which had defined its structures and priorities; struggle with inadequate resources, training and incentives offered to it; and function within a larger moral environment which neither rewards nor encourages integrity and talent. To expect these people to be saints, when most others around them are not, is both unrealistic and unfair.

However, it is undeniable that there are some widespread anxieties and scepticism about the rule of law in the country. It is in this particular context that this picture is so memorable and the officer so heroic. He serves to reaffirm our faith in the system, and reminds us once again that there are honourable people in law enforcement willing, and daring, to do the right thing.

The only aspect of the photograph that is bit awkward, but which also speaks volumes, is that the officer has his hands folded in front of him in a traditional gesture of submission and forgiveness-seeking. Sir, it is the occupant of the vehicle who should be assuming that posture, not you. The law is on your side. So are we. Stand tall.


The author, Ahrar Ahmad is the director-general of Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation.


Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary

Origin of Bengali Calendar and the celebration of ‘Noboborsho’

cc614c7fe3b876a539e58a314e7a94c5[1]Only three more days to go before another Bengali New Year (also known as Noboborsho), year 1425 on the 14th of April 2018, ushers in sweeping away the misery and pain of the past year. Welcoming the Noboborsho (also known as Pohela Baishakh i.e. the first of the Bengali month called Baishakh) is a very joyous occasion in Bengali culture and it is very much steeped in tradition. That tradition overrides any religious divide, narrow sectarianism and tribalism.

The day normally starts with boys and girls, men and women, all waking up early in the morning before the sun-rise. They are all dressed in bright colourful outfits and women are donned in bright yellow saris and garlands in their hair. The women carry garlands in their hands as they walk the streets, as if to offer garlands to the exalted souls of the New Year and they chant Noboborsho-welcoming songs. As the sun rises, they would welcome the new day ushering in the new year and pray in songs and kirtons that the new year will bring peace, prosperity and happiness. The procession of men and women in convivial mood continues throughout the day and in the evening, there are theatre stages where songs (mainly Tagore songs), plays, dramas etc. are presented.

The Noboborsho (New Year) is not just the beginning of a year in Bengali tradition, it is the beginning of a new chapter, a new undertaking in life. In olden days (before the creation of Pakistan), the Noboborsho would also see the beginning of a new book – a business ledger – for the traders, small businesses or even professionals such as teachers, doctors, engineers etc. For them the new book was like a diary where past experiences, present accomplishments and future aspirations are all depicted. And, as usual, no big occasion in Bengal would go without distribution of sweets!

There used to be a Ponjika – a short printed book giving major events of the next one year and guiding people through thick and thin of their lives. Altogether, Noboborsho is the culmination of the past year and the beginning of a new year, both of them are of equal significance.

This tradition stretching back centuries was temporarily interrupted by the new state, Pakistan, which was created in 1947 on the basis of religious doctrines. Since the Bengali language and culture evolved over the centuries in the land where Hindus and Muslims (as well as Buddhists, Jains and so forth) lived side by side, Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan felt threatened by this long-held tradition. They insisted that Bengali language, Bengali tradition are all Hindu tradition and Muslims of Bangladesh should avoid, indeed boycott, these things and become ‘true Muslims’ by adopting Pakistan’s Urdu language. For the Bengali Muslims, it was like tearing up the age-old tradition and identity for the sake of imported religion. This conflict eventually led to the breakup of Pakistan and thence Bengali Muslims reclaimed their tradition and identity now.

Even now, nearly fifty years after the creation of Bangladesh on the basis of language and culture, there are strident calls by the over-jealous Islamists within the country to stop celebrating Bangla Noboborsho on the plea that it is anti-Islamic and blatantly Hinduism. Even the Bengali Calendar is viewed as anti-Islamic practice. These religious bigots preach things without any shred of knowledge and understanding.

The view that Bangla Noboborsho and Bangla calendar are imports from Hindu culture to Muslim Bangladesh is not only blatantly communal and racist, but also grossly misconceived. This assertion on the basis of religious bigotry could not be farthest from the truth.

Let me give a brief background of the history of Bengali Calendar and how the 14th of April came to be used to usher in the Noboborsho, 1425 BS (Bangla Sôn).

The third Mughal Emperor, Muhammad Akbar (also reverentially addressed as Akbar the Great), was a great reformer and instrumental in promulgating a new Bengali Calendar after modifying the then existing calendar. He did so in order to facilitate the administrative procedures and to fix a firm tax collection date in Bengal.

At that time, the calendar that used to be utilised was known as Tarikh-e-Elahi, which followed the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar year consists of twelve months, but has 354 or 355 days (following 12 lunar rotations round the earth). Thus, there is a drift of about 10 or 11 days every year between the lunar and solar (Gregorian) calendars. That created a major practical problem. A fixed date for the collection of taxes from the farmers and peasants, normally set at the end of a harvest period, gradually came forward by about 11 days every year and fell out of season.

That meant that whereas a tax collection date might have been originally fixed after the harvest period gradually drifted forward and became a date prior to the harvest after just a few years. That created immense misery to the farmers to pay taxes before the harvest! Realising this serious practical problem, Mughal Emperor, Akbar along with the royal astronomer, Fathullah Shirazi developed the Bengali calendar. It was a synthesis of Islamic lunar calendar and the modern solar calendar.

The year Akbar took over the reign of the Mughal Empire was 1556 AD (Gregorian Calendar). That year in Islamic calendar was 963 AH (Anno Hegirae). He promulgated that a new calendar would be started on the 1st of Muharram (which is the first month of the Islamic Calendar) in that year of 963 AH. Following that system, the year would follow the solar year (365 days) and so no mismatch between the new calendar and the seasons would arise from that time. That calendar came eventually to be known as the Bangla Calendar with Bangla months such as Boishakh, Jyoishto etc. assigned to it.

However, that calendar was slightly revised during the Pakistan days by a committee headed by Dr Mohammad Shahidullah under the auspices of the Bangla Academy in 1966. That revised version (when 14th April was fixed as the beginning of the year) was adopted officially in Bangladesh in 1987. That is the calendar that ushers in the Bengali Noboborsho.

Now the question is how do we get to the year 1425 BS on the 14th of April 2018 AD? The following consideration would show how it is done.

As the start of this calendar was 1556 AD (Akbar’s accession to the throne), which was also the beginning of the Islamic year 963 AH, 462 years (2018 AD – 1556 AD) had passed since then until now. Now adding 462 years to the Islamic year of 963 AH (when the system started), we get 1425. This is how we have the incoming New Year of 1425 BS this year.

Also, one can analyse the difference between the Bengali Calendar and the Islamic Calendar. The Islamic year now is 1439 AH, whereas the Bengali year is 1425 BS. The time when divergence took place was in 1556 AD and during these intervening 462 years (2018-1556) the Islamic calendar fell short by 462 x 11 = 5082 days with regard to solar calendar. This then produced over 14 years (5082/355) in Islamic calendar. In other words, an extra 14 years were produced in the Islamic calendar since the commencement of the Bengali calendar, and that explains why it is 1439 AH, but in Bangla calendar it is 1425 BS.

The adoption and modification of calendars are done by many countries – Islamic or non-Islamic – to suit their needs.

Islamic Republic of Iran uses the Solar Hijri Calendar, called the Sham Hijri (SH), which begins with the vernal equinox (the start of spring in the northern hemisphere). The length of time between vernal equinox and autumnal equinox is about 186 days and 10 hours and the other cycle is 178 days. Afghanistan uses a slight variation of the Iranian calendar. West Bengal uses a Bengali calendar where the Noboborsho is on 15th of April.

Thus, any claim that the Bengali Calendar belongs to a Hindu religion or culture and that adoption of this calendar is un-Islamic can be categorically rejected. Such assertions are utter rubbish and pure bigotry.
A. Rahman is an author and columnist.