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.