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My Dhaka visit: Re-searching identity

Partha Sarathi

For a world without border
Crossing the border of a country is no issue for a bird as they have wings and no border can restrict their movement. What if we have wings too! The borders would have vanished then along with the all-mighty states simply because the existence of states depends on the drawing and re-drawing of the borders by the might of swords and guns, thereby justifying the continuance of the huge state-military complex at the expense of the people. Such improbable dreams filled my mind as I crossed the India-Bangladesh border by air. The barbed wire fencing at the border had long been a hurdle for my getting access to my ancestral homeland as I was (and still am) accused in several sedition cases by the Indian state. I could cross the border only after getting ‘no objection’ from the relevant courts through a fairly long and tedious process, although it is well-known that no restriction and fencing can arrest the illegal smuggling and trading of all kinds.

In fact, stepping into Bangladesh had become a challenge to me as I could never forget that Bangladesh had been an integral part of the ‘Bangali jati’ (Bengali nation or nationality whatever one may call it) that was divided in political interest and vitiated by the communal forces. The divisive forces on both sides of the border are still quite active in spreading communal venom. My visit to Bangladesh was intended to reassure my identity as part of the larger Bangali jati fragmented by the border. My first visit to Bangladesh in October 2015 was to attend a meeting in Khulna. So this opportunity to visit Dhaka has been very special to me for several reasons that unfolded to me during the brief stay in the city.

While approaching the immigration officer at the Dhaka airport, I could immediately feel the bitter existence of ‘state’ as the young man at the desk after going through the invitation letter given to me by the Water and Flood Management Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) smilingly said, ‘Whatever researches may you conduct on water, our problem will not be solved, as your didi is not inclined to give us water. We are happy that she is facing a lot of troubles now-a-days.’         

Obviously, the officer was pointing to the fact that ‘didi’ means Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Mnister of West Bengal, has been opposing sharing of greater amount of Ganga water with Bangladesh, which has long been a contentious issue between the two countries, India and Bangladesh. On the entry-point itself, I got the impression how the two Bengals remain at loggerheads only to serve the parochial interests of the political bosses. How a natural resource is being used to create division between the people living across the border. Whether I agree with his stand or not, I was impressed over the candid way the officer put forward a political debate while greeting me in his country. Throughout my stay in Dhaka I was moved by the candid and sincere greetings I received from the persons I could meet there.    

Brain versus heart!
Once a renowned intellectual of Kolkata commented that there has not been much intellectual development in Bangladesh since partition. It may seem true if we compare the position of Kolkata in the intellectual world with that of Dhaka. But while Kolkata-based intellectuals may be ahead in the academic world, the Dhaka-based intellectual community seems way ahead in their sincere and hearty approach, the kind of which is conspicuously absent here in Kolkata. Human history is galore with examples when development of brain without heart led to negative if not catastrophic results. In this part of Bengal, intellectual development seems to have further widened the gap between the ‘bhadraloks’ and the ‘chhotoloks’.  

A close observation of socio-cultural developments in West Bengal would reveal the perpetuating dominance of the caste-Hindu erudite section, the so-called ‘Bhadraloks’, in all spheres of society, from administration to academic and cultural institutions since the colonial days. These are the people who still carry the legacy of colonial culture, send their children to English-medium schools, feel more comfort to speak English than Bengali, discriminate the great majority of the (working) people in numerous ways for their so-called ‘ignorance’ and ‘backwardness’ and thus keep the age-old structure of domination intact. Interestingly, this caste-Hindu domination has nothing to do with the change of regime as both the ‘left’ and ‘right’ political parties draw their leadership from upper caste Hindus and patronize this section. Although through numerous struggles of the working people in this state, the subaltern people have earned significant social prestige, but their position continues to remain at the bottom layer of political and social hierarchy.

This reference is not meant to state that Bangladesh or Dhaka has a completely different culture. In Dhaka I have noticed people in the higher echelon, from University professors to bureaucrats and political leaders, to appear in the public wearing coat-tie and was astonished to find even left people referring to their leader as ‘saheb’ that we generally utter to mean the Europeans. The word ‘comrade’ that once emerged in left politics bulldozing the hierarchical concept of human relationship has long become mere ornamental losing much of its significance probably on both sides of the border. The culture of elitism proved to be more deep-rooted than we had envisaged as it soon raised its ugly face even in countries we believed to have been liberated from capitalism. 

Still the approach of Dhaka intellectuals distinctly lacked the kind of elitism we used to find in Kolkata. Such an approach has amazed and enamoured me more than anything else. Here, on this part of the border, development of intellectual faculty seems to have not been proportionate to that of heart. People having a great heart here are often called as ‘sentimental fool’, a term particularly coined by the elite bhadraloks. In this respect, I found the erudite people of Dhaka far more sincere, affectionate and open hearted. Let me narrate my brief experience.

Before reaching Dhaka, except a few professors from BUET and Dhaka University associated with the research project I was working for, I had very little acquaintance there.  Hence, the way I was greeted there by persons unknown to me till the day before was beyond my imagination. The only connection with them was a book written by me on Left Politics in West Bengal, the review of which was published in Frontier and had drawn the attention of some of them. Once they got the information that I would be visiting Dhaka, they became keen to meet me and have discussions on the subject matter of the book. This was a pleasant surprise for an unknown author like me. A writers’ organization namely, ‘Bangladesh Lekhok Shibir’ sent me prior invitation for an informal discussion on my book even before having got it in their hands. I should reiterate that this is something unimaginable in Kolkata where the intelligentsia close to ‘left’ politics is generally averse to open-hearted discussions, critiques and new ideas on left politics.

Emotions on left politics
The brief discussion, attended by a number of activists from student organization and trade unions apart from writers, seemed significant to me by their still persisting emotions on left politics and keenness to understand the trajectory of the left in this part of the border. Frankly, I was not prepared to answer much of their questions as I myself had more questions than answers on the problems besetting left politics. I was rather eager to learn from their experiences and ideas. But I was amazed by their sincere queries on the future of left in West Bengal. Interestingly, they were more eager to know about the left parties, generally regarded as radicals or Naxalites, including the Maoists. Anyhow, in the short span of discussion our exchange of views remained largely incomplete. But at the end I felt that probably I found more friends in the left circle in Dhaka than in Kolkata’s where the party-centric left sympathizers would love to ignore a ‘deserter’ like me.

While I met one prolific writer of left politics the other day in Dhaka, he emphasized that I had been wrong to think that I had left active politics. To him, critical writing on left politics is no less an activism in comparison to what people associated to parties generally do, no matter whether the latter recognize it or not. This writer known to me from his articles occasionally published in Frontier became my friend even before I met him. He invited me in his house for dinner immediately after knowing my arrival in Dhaka. He might have seen a few of my writings, but the way he received me coming all the way to BUET and guided me through different historical places in and around Dhaka University gave me a completely new experience of the city and its people.
I found this writer-friend too emotionally involved in the ups and downs of left politics even after departing active party politics long years back. While passing through the Shahabag movement arena, I was surprised to see him lamenting repeatedly over the reluctance of one left leader in attending and addressing the great mobilization of youths there. I was keen to know more about the movement and I found a ready narrator of the same as he had been one who joined and observed the movement from the day one and remained emotionally involved till the last. The long-drawn movement became livid to me as I could envision great events like the gathered youths being fed by working people of the city and from rural areas.

While walking through Dhaka University, Ramna Maidan, the Bangla Academy, the Department of Fine Arts, the tomb of the great poet Najrul Islam and the National Museum, my just-found friend seemed to be walking down the memory lane of his past political life and past movements that centered around there and created and recreated the destiny of the young nation time and again. The journey on that evening became an unforgettable experience thanks to his tireless narration that unfolded before my eyes a number of historical events during and after the freedom struggle that gave the Bengalis a national identity with which I could relate and identify myself.

Finally, I would mention another friend in Dhaka also unknown to me till we met late one night after he postponed his travel to Rongpur for two days just to meet me. I was touched by his keen interest to meet me and his ardent queries about my life and works. In brief, I felt really honoured by the kind of attention I received in the left intellectual circle of Dhaka that I never thought to have deserved. Precisely this attitude provoked me to compare Dhaka’s left intellectuals with those in Kolkata, particularly in respect to the inherent elitist and exclusivist approach of the latter.

Colourful Bangladesh
We, the Bengalis of Kolkata, often feel proud of our secular culture and envisage Bangladesh as a country infested with fundamentalist ideology. We feel naturally disturbed by the attacks on minorities and secular people in different parts of Bangladesh. But my brief visit to Dhaka posed a scenario not completely different to what we find in India. Throughout the world today different kinds of fundamentalism and bigotry are flourishing as we find in the rise of Trump in USA and Modi in India. The kind of communal harmony we are habituated to live with in this part of Bengal seems fragile in this growing atmosphere of intolerance. What attracted my attention while in Dhaka was a picture of seemingly growing defiance and resistance to fundamentalism.

Firstly, I rarely found men and women on the streets of Dhaka with religious attire that we used to find in most of the Muslim-dominated countries. Some of the women on the streets were seen to wearing ‘hijab’ with their faces uncovered, but none came to my notice wearing ‘borkha’. Still my writer-friend in Dhaka was worried as the use of ‘hijab’ was increasing in Bangladesh with the growing influence of fundamentalism. But the heartening thing is the deep impact of Shahabag movement which was basically a mobilization of the new generation against religious fundamentalism. In India also, the influence of religious fundamentalism in the form of Hindutva is slowly engulfing the polity, but such mobilization has not taken place against it.

So while the rise of fundamentalism might be seen as a global phenomenon in contemporary world, in Bangladesh the forces of resistance to fundamentalism seem to have gained significant strength over time posing formidable challenge to the same. Most remarkably this resistance was initiated and sustained by the new generation youths and appreciably, the Shahabag movement arena has been named as ‘Projonmo Chatwar’ (that is, an arena for the new generation). Thanks to this movement, the people of Bangladesh have emerged in the forefront of struggle against fundamentalism. 

While passing through Dhaka University premises, I found cultural function going on under a big banyan tree where one baul (traditional folk singer) was singing a song, ‘Let my soul fly to Kashi or Makkah …’. The names of Kashi and Makkah were uttered with the same reverence blowing away the religious divide signified by the two places of pilgrimage. This folk culture belongs to both parts of Bengal and has steadfastly created an atmosphere of unity and amity of people across caste and religion. Because of deep-rooted influence of such secular culture, religious fundamentalism has not yet been able to spread its fangs among the Bengalis on both sides of the border.

Significantly, a number of such cultural programmes were taking place at the same time in and around the Dhaka University area. Cultural programmes were regularly held throughout the February month in front of the Language Martyrs’ column erected in memory of the martyrs who had laid down their lives on 21 February 1952 demanding Bengali to be recognized as one of the national language. Lakhs of people spontaneously gathered here on the occasions of Language Day (21 February) and the Bengali New Year (1st Boishakh). In Kolkata we do not have any such secular occasion to celebrate except the Durga Puja festivals, though we think us more secular and hence more progressive. 

The memory of freedom struggle
Finally I would mention the influence of freedom struggle on the polity of Bangladesh though I did get little opportunity to discuss the same with the people there. But what attracted my attention while moving through Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh (as I came back by bus crossing the vast and fabulous Padma River) was the almost omnipresence of martyrs’ column in memory of the language martyrs along with columns erected in memory of the millions of people martyred by the Pakistani army and their accomplices during the liberation war. It seemed that the huge sacrifices in the liberation struggle in continuation with the sacrifices for the recognition of Bengali language had constructed the national identity and the popular psyche to be deeply secular preventing the country being turned into another hotbed for fervent fundamentalist activities. 

In fact, the emergence of the Bengali nation had long countered the vicious ‘two nation theory’ dividing the people in the name of religion. Though disturbed by sporadic fundamentalist attacks in the background of rise of religious fanaticism all over the world, Bangladesh remains distinct by its struggle to establish the honour of Bengali language and the identity of Bengali nation followed by the resistance to religious bigotry. This is precisely why I would love to go back to this place to enjoy my identity as a Bangalee.    

Frontier
Mar 24, 2017


Partha Sarathi may be contacted at psb3210@yahoo.co.in

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