Monday, January 26, 2009

The Logos of Bangladesh

(click above to read article)

Two things conspire to multiply falsehood about Bangladesh: an ersatz nationalism, and a very real domination by western donor governments. The culture of lies that these have created robs even everyday life of its dignity, and sustains a noxious elite that thrives like a parasite on the backs of 'the people'.


Bangladesh's elite claim that the West wing tried to impose 'their' language, Urdu, on 'us'. It is repeated ad nauseum that Jinnah said that Urdu alone would be the state language of Pakistan; but Jinnah couldn't speak a word of Urdu! "The man who could not speak Urdu could move the Muslim multitude. [35]" According to Stephens, Pakistan experienced none of the language-based upheavals of South Asia. The only fracas he notes was the attempt by Prime Minster Nazimuddin to rank Bengali below Urdu in 1952 [36]. That produced our 'language martyrs' or 'language shaheed', the latter a curiously Muslim word used to denote those who die for Islam. The event was, compared to other South Asian movements, so trivial that Stephens mentions only "some students among the casualties [37]". And under the 1956 constitution, Urdu and Bengali got equal rank, a status confirmed in the constitution of 1962. But 21st February 1952 has lodged permanently in the elite psyche of Bangladesh. It was essential to define the demon 'Other', West Pakistan, though Nazimuddin himself was Bengali.

It is ironic to note that Bengali literature flourished under British rule – when the state language was English. In 1835, Lord William Bentinck had effectively replaced Persian with English, which Muslims refused to learn, and Hindus, who had learnt Persian under the Mughals, quickly adopted [38]. "During this period, Bengali literature produced a spate of novels—satiric, social, and picaresque. [39]" Bankim Chandra Chaterjee's infamous anti-Muslim novel Anandamath appeared in 1881: "a patriotic tale of the revolt of the sannyasis against the Muslim forces of the East India company. [40] "

"To his contemporaries his voice was that of a prophet; his valiant Hindu heroes aroused their patriotism and pride of race. In him nationalism and Hinduism merged as one; and his creed was epitomized in the song 'Bande Mātaram' ('Hail to thee, Mother')—from his novel Ānandamaṭh—which later became the mantra ('hymn') and slogan of Hindu India in its struggle for independence." Of course, the crowning achievement was that of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize.

That is to say, the official English language, far from muting indigenous literary output, actually stimulated it. If Bengalis were willing to put up with English then, why not with Urdu later? Not because Urdu would have killed off Bengali – but because, as the violent linguistic movements throughout South Asia in the '50s attest, nationalism was on the ascendant, ironically infected by English jingoism. But we shall see the pharisaical nature of our attachment to Bengali.

Besides, whatever the economic differences between West and East Pakistan, ultimately nationalism knows no rationality. The Quebec elite still wish to separate from Canada; the Basques and Catalans want autonomy verging on – if not actual – independence. To claim that nationalism is a rational response to perceived economic inequality would be to assign rationality to a lunatic aspiration. Income inequality has existed in every country – witness Italy's and England's south and north....The latter can argue that the former grew rich on the industrial might of the northern English towns, now blighted through deindustrialization. Therefore, the north should secede from England! Scotland gets a handsome amount of dosh from England, yet the Scottish Nationalist Party wants to secede. It is remarkable that the cinema 'Braveheart' could reignite Scottish nationalism.

"Their victimhood is an invention," observed The Economist of the Scots in a disturbing article [41].It observed that Tony Blair, Helen Liddell, Robin Cook, Derry Irvine and John Reid were all Scots – and Scotland had its own parliament and executive. During the World Cup, the bestselling newspaper The Daily Record urged the Scots to cheer on every opponent of the English team. And, more frighteningly, incidents of bullying of English children at school rose alarmingly; ChildLine Scotland recorded a sudden surge in calls from hapless English children. "Scots seem to have an enormous chip on their shoulder," observed the head of the Confederation of British Industry who blamed Scotland's weak economy on its failure to attract English investment. Ross Finnie, a Liberal democrat minister, retorted eloquently with "English prat".

Consider the career of Slobodan Milosevich. As leader of the Serbian communist party in 1986, he turned Kosovo into a crusade – merely to advance his political career. He revived the cult of Prince Lazar, who had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks six hundred years ago – and on June 28 1989, he turned the anniversary into a national event [42]. Who was the victim here? Was any rational calculation at work? Yes, from Milosevic's point of view – he advanced his career. But what about the people whose emotions he stirred? Were they behaving rationally? Nationalism brooks no reason.

Nationalism, of course, was a West European, Franco-German, idea: it spread to Asia by means of conquest and subsequent reeducation of the natives. That the experiment of the nation-state was bound to fail seems, in retrospect, obvious. And fail it did, throughout South Asia, according to Tambiah. "In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, the attempt to realise the nation-state on a Western European model has virtually failed. The nation-state conception has not taken deep roots in South Asia or generated a wide-spread and robust participatory ‘public culture’ that celebrates it in widely meaningful ceremonies, festivals, and rituals [43]."

No comments: