Nationalism is a conflicting phenomenon. Distinguished from patriotism, which is a visceral pride and loyalty one feels for country, nationalism denotes culture, language, and ethnicity as legitimate units of politics and governance. Although the preservation of culture is of course important, nationalism is historically notorious for its construction of a glorified, mythical identity that justifies evils like racism, imperialism, and war.
Yet, in a more personal context, nationalism is something quite different: it is a mechanism for survival. Bangladesh, my country of origin, found its independence through Bengali nationalism, as a response to Pakistani oppression, anti-democracy, and militarism. Thus, the state, people, and collective memory of Bangladesh are defined by the Bengali language. A language that is deeply invested in the arts and literature. A language that transcends borders and religions, because the region of Bengal is shared between India’s West Bengal and Bangladesh. A language that is reproduced thousands of miles abroad, where the Bengali diaspora fervently send their children – like me – to weekend language schools and insist on speaking Bengali at home. That is why, while my name is officially Ibnul (Fahim), I respond just as much to “Kabya,” my Bengali nickname.
But therein lies a tension. My two names present the reality that Bangladesh is not just about Bengali culture or nationalism; Ibnul (Fahim) is Arabic because Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country. While I have often felt cognitive dissonance with these two identities, it has always seemed that the Muslim Bengali community could reconcile their separate traditions into co-existence. After all, Bangladesh split off from Pakistan, a Muslim country, in defense of secular nationalism. After all, Bangladesh hosts a sizable Hindu minority.
Though, recently, this feel-good idea of Bangladesh – of being rooted in progressive interpretations of Bengali secular nationalism – began to crack. On July 1st, a terrorist attack, targeting non-Muslim foreigners, occurred in the capital city of Dhaka. After the natural outpouring of grief, the responses I heard were predictable:
These killers are not Muslims, or true Bangladeshis, because Bangladesh isn’t a violent, intolerant place, and terrorism has no religion. This is all an international conspiracy, and ISIS is responsible. Bangladesh is just a victim of a series of terrorist attacks, from Orlando, to Istanbul, to Baghdad, to Nice.
This act of externalising responsibility to foreignness and senselessness, and re-invoking the collective memory of Bangladesh as a secular nationalist country, is comforting. However, the killers were not foreigners, poor, or marginalised members of society. Contrarily, they were very much a part of elite Bangladeshi culture. To not look within ourselves is an exercise of privilege that neglects a dark, political reality rooting back to Bangladesh’s founding.
Bangladesh used to be the Eastern half of Pakistan, a country bloodily partitioned from India in 1947. Partition was on religious grounds, with India a destination for Hindus, and Pakistan for Muslims. While religion unified Pakistan, its two wings were separated by thousands of miles of India, and more importantly, by ethnicity and culture: the Punjabis dominated the West, the Bengalis the East.
However, Islam was not enough; statehood engendered a thirst for homogenisation. In the decades following partition, the Punjabi-West Pakistani elite imposed their Urdu language on East Pakistan, which resisted in defense of their Bengali culture. Furthermore, the West Pakistani elite ruled the entire country through undemocratic, military dictatorships, often drawing the Bengali population into issues where the latter had no interest – for example, a war with India over Kashmir in 1965. (A war which cost my paternal grandfather his life.)
By 1970, the West Pakistani elite had opened up to democracy, but quickly found itself threatened with the victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, a party in East Pakistan. The prospect of being ruled by Bengalis saw West Pakistan essentially reject the election result. This, yet another example of anti-Bengali governance, culminated into widespread discontent in the East, inflaming Bengali nationalism and separatism. Where democracy had failed to satisfy the elite, old-fashioned militarism was the answer – a massive crackdown on the East began on March 25, 1971, in the name of “unity” and “order.”
And how would such unity and order be achieved, if both wings of Pakistan were already Muslim? This is where privilege comes from a Muslim Bengali standpoint. To the West Pakistani elite, East Pakistan’s Hindu minority was a poison that influenced Muslim Bengalis toward separatism and toward pro-India sentiments (India being the “Hindu nemesis” of Pakistan since partition). Furthermore, the Punjabis generalised Bengalis as “lesser Muslims,” for being descendants of converts from lower-class Hindus.
Thus, the violent crackdown did not just target Awami League members and intellectuals, who were regarded as central to the Bengali resistance, but instituted a selective genocide that disproportionately affected the Hindu minority – millions of whom were murdered or became refugees to India. As a young girl, my mother recalls seeing the Pakistani military scanning lines of men to check for circumcision and verify their religion. For the West Pakistani elite, the elimination of Hindu Bengalis would not only purify the overall Bengali population, but reduce its overall size, so that the democratic balance of power would shift toward West Pakistan in an election. At the same time, Bengali resistance amounted to attacks on the Bihari population of East Pakistan, an Urdu-speaking minority accused as collaborators of West Pakistan.
1971, then, was not just a clash of cultures, but an Islamist attack in character. Yet, I observe that in the collective memory of Bangladeshi people, the incredible suffering of Hindu Bengalis and Biharis are secondary. Rather, Muslim Bengalis, the majority, are centred as victims in the recalling of suffering and resistance. Hence, although independent Bangladesh proclaimed a constitution based on democracy, socialism, secularism, and nationalism, the seeds of division remained. The reality that non-Muslim Bengalis lacked safety, that the stories and memories of minorities in general lacked importance, persisted. Pakistani colonialism ended, but perhaps only nominally.
Flash forward to the 21st century. Decades after 1971, the Awami League pursued war criminal tribunals against Bengali collaborators, belonging to Islamist political factions, of the Pakistani military crackdown and genocide. While these tribunals were regarded as a strategy to suppress opposition parties, they nonetheless gained widespread nationalist support and culminated into the Shahbag protests of 2013. These protests demanded the death penalty for those prosecuted, and the banning of Islamist politics in general. Islamists, under threat, could not frame their defense by attacking this movement’s strong nationalism, as Nazmul Sultan argues; instead, Islamists associated the movement with radical atheist bloggers.
With this alternative depiction, Shahbag’s broad, secular nationalism became diluted with an anti-Islam image, with which it became difficult for the general public or the government to associate. It is under this context that Islamist violence against atheist bloggers, and other religious minorities (including Hindus), has been nurtured, legitimated, and escalated in recent years. Also, as Sultan articulates, the government’s current unelected status, and unwillingness to alienate certain political elements, contribute to its hesitance to seriously crack down on Islamist violence.
The 2016 café attack on foreigners, therefore, is just another addition of Islamist violence against non-Muslims in the context of undemocratic governance. It is rooted in Bangladesh’s longstanding inability to democratise, politicise, and organise the values of secularism and equality that it claimed upon independence. Indeed, Bangladesh has yet to show a true defense of its minority constituencies, whether atheist bloggers, Hindu Bengalis, LGBT peoples, Biharis, or Indigenous peoples. In this sense, the antidemocratic Islamism that West Pakistan represented in 1971 – that brutalised East Pakistan by associating it with Hinduism – continues within Bangladesh today, as a form of internal colonialism.
At the same time, the international media and Western politicians wrongly neglect the domestic politics of events like the café attack, and instead exploit them to justify their imperialistic “War on Terror” in the Middle East. Rather, we must take the attack as an opportunity to look within our own history and culture; to accept the internal conflicts that remain from 1971 and that continue to challenge the independent, secularist identity for which we pride ourselves.
Still, 1971 cannot just be understood as Islamist, Pakistani colonialism. As Gary Bass demonstrates in The Blood Telegram, the Bengali struggle was a playing field for the great powers of the Cold War: India, China, the United States, and the Soviet Union. In fact, America’s dynamic duo, Nixon and Kissinger, invested heavily in the Pakistani military dictatorship materially and financially, thus allowing the Bengali genocide to occur. Pakistan, after all, was a fierce anticommunist ally that offered a backchannel to open American communications with China. Furthermore, Pakistan was the only South Asian alternative to India, whose left-leaning leaders and “non-aligned” neutrality during the Cold War were problematic for American foreign policy. Meanwhile, India backed the Bengali struggle, with Soviet support.
But it wasn’t a simple binary of America and Pakistan as the imperial overlords, and the Soviet Union and India as the heroes of Bengal. Yes, India had a democratic concern: its electorate wanted to help, especially the West Bengalis who were horrified to see their ethnic kin slaughtered across the border. Yes, India had a humanitarian concern: millions of refugees were entering in the east. But India also had a political objective: here was an opportunity to weaken its Pakistani nemesis into two halves, once and for all. A recognition of Cold War era politics, then, makes clear that Pakistani colonialism was not the only threat surrounding Bengali liberation. American support for genocide and Indian self-interest in the conflict foreshadowed alternative imperialisms that soon came to undermine independent Bangladesh.
With the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, Bangladesh fell to several periods of military rule. Just as the Pakistani elite’s antidemocratic, militaristic nature correlated with its partnership with the American government, so too were the Bangladeshi military and ruling classes poised for the tyrannical twins of anti-democacy and imperialistic influence. However, the masses this time would taste a different brand of such tyranny: World Bank-International Monetary Fund structural adjustment reforms.
As Anu Muhammad elucidates, Bangladesh swiftly became a commodity for global neoliberalism through the mechanisms of privatisation and financialisation. Foremost, its economy was re-oriented from public enterprises to a focus on export-oriented manufacturing – especially in the garments industry. Of course, the profitability of these garments exports for foreign companies, including ones based in Canada, was exposed in the deadly 2013 Rana Plaza collapse for a lack of factory safety standards and the general exploitation of a largely feminised labour force. Furthermore, Bangladesh has faced the privatisation of its energy sectors by multinational corporations, against which the masses have resisted due to threats of land dispossession, environmental degradation, and the compromised livelihood of local peoples. Finally, the world-renowned phenomenon of poverty alleviation through “microcredit” has simply been a cover for corporate NGO’s to enter Bangladesh for more profitable ventures, while the actual loans have largely pulled rural peasants into debt traps. In sum, the people of Bangladesh do not exercise independence of their economy, labour, or resources.
The latest feature of such neoliberal imperialism has been of Indian influence, the supposed ally of 1971, with the Rampal coal-fired power plant. This plant, a joint Indian-Bangladeshi venture, reached an agreement on July 12th. (Interestingly, unlike the café attack, it has received little coverage in the international media – probably because elite interests prefer to keep this tragedy unexposed.) The major concern of this project is its location near the Sundarbans of coastal Bangladesh, the world’s largest mangrove forest, which represents many things: incredible biodiversity; a source of carbon capture, protection from natural disasters; and home to local peoples and their agriculture. The plant, in turn, threatens extensive pollution and destruction of the local ecosystem that is critical for human and wildlife sustenance. Given that the Sundarbans are a fundamental part of the natural identity and livelihood of Bangladesh, this plant faces fierce people’s resistance. The bottom line, then, is that the democratic will of the Bangladeshi people is being compromised, yet again, for the interests of the ruling classes and foreign (Indian) profiteering. This underlines imperialism at its latest stage, as not a military crackdown, but economic exploitation and environmental poisoning.
Notably, the Sundarbans’ ability to capture carbon and protect people from natural disasters plays an important role in resisting climate change. On this point, it can be noted that after Islamism and neoliberal imperialism, environmental disaster is a third threat that has played a pivotal political role in Bangladesh’s history. First, in 1970, a cyclone had killed hundreds of thousands in East Pakistan. The West Pakistani government’s negligence toward this crisis alienated the Bengali population and contributed to the secessionist movement that followed in 1971. Likewise, in 1973-74, floods and droughts had again plagued the country and exposed Rahman’s administration, which failed to manage the famine that followed. Consequently, Rahman began to centralise power, a move which contributed to his assassination and the rise of military rule.
Today, the natural environment endures drastic climate change. For Bangladesh, a low-lying, coastal country that is already vulnerable to floods and cyclones, rising sea levels threaten severe land degradation and dispossession. (The destruction of the Sundarbans will aggravate this threat.) Agriculture, a major sector of the economy, faces devastation. Poor people will be hit the hardest, as the inhabitability of the southernmost river deltas will force many to urbanise into slum areas that will not offer them much better resistance to natural disasters. Millions will be forced to become climate refugees.
Although Western, industrialised countries are most responsible for global climate change, Bangladesh will disproportionately face the consequences. Such unjust global relations constitute environmental colonialism, an indirect form of violence. Furthermore, as the climate has previously contributed to the splitting of Pakistan and the assassination of Rahman, climate-induced phenomena like agricultural destruction and refugees will accentuate questions of global climate justice and surely transform the political landscape of Bangladesh, again.
Clearly, the existential struggles highlighted in July of 2016 are linked to 1971. The anti-secular Islamist genocide, exploitative foreign interests, and disproportionate climate disasters surrounding Bangladesh’s independence continue to be reproduced as antidemocratic forces. Therefore, Bengali nationalism remain relevant in the struggle of the masses for democratisation and self-determination of identities, resources, and environment.
However, Bengali nationalism must firmly re-claim secularism in identity and collective memory. Pakistan’s call for unity in 1971 did not justify erasing our mother tongue, and similarly, we cannot allow Islamism to erase the non-Muslim identity that is integral to the revolutionary history of Bengal: whether in our collective resistance to the British empire; in the legendary poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote what became the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh; or in the Naxalite-Maoist movement that is rooted in West Bengal. Concurrently, us privileged Bangladeshis living in the glamorised Western world, not facing the same threats, must exercise solidarity. We must realise that our adopted governments are responsible for many of the tragedies Bangladesh has and does face – from genocide, to economic exploitation, to climate disaster – and that they must be held accountable. Only through an inclusive movement, of minorities and expatriates, can Bengali nationalism be a revolutionary force that replaces colonialism in its Islamist, neoliberal, and environmental incarnations.
Ultimately, independence cannot truly manifest until the most vulnerable peoples, especially the religiously and economically marginalised, are also liberated. In this sense, the ideals and values of 1971 do not just belong to history; they are yet to be realised.
Cover photo: Shahbag protests. Taken February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj.
Story first published in – Kabya Flow