What are the key features that constitute being Bengali?
Nationalism is a never-ending debate in South Asia. Indian public discourse has lately been entangled lately in the debate on Indian vs Hindu nationalism. Pakistan began with South Asian Muslim nationalism and now it has been reduced to an ad hoc Pakistani nationalism revised by its new political elite to fit their interest.
Two-nation theory is long gone; the Pakistanis are after a small patch of land in the high Karakoram, completely abandoning the well-being of 170 million Indian Muslims, part of whom were also mobilized under the rubric of the Pakistan movement in pre-independence time.
Bangladesh too, started with subcontinental Muslim nationalism as the east wing of Pakistan. The Bengali identity consciousness subsided and Bangladesh was born through a revolutionary event under the slogan of Bengali nationalism. East Pakistanis became Bengalis in the 1950s and 1960s through a cultural, intellectual, and political awakening.
But there is a catch to the Bengali nationalism that grew in East Pakistan, as there already was an old Bengali identity — the one of West Bengal and even that included Bengali-speaking Hindus of East Pakistan. What about that? And, that — in a sense — is the original modern Bengali identity starting with the affluent caste of Hindus of the 19th century. It later evolved to include all Bengali Hindus of the east and west.
On occasions before 1947, it also extended a hesitant hand to the Muslims who, by and large, declined, at that time, for complex socio-economic and cultural reasons. The same Bengali-speaking Muslims of East Bengal embraced Bengali nationalism spontaneously when it came to the struggle for freedom from the neo-colonial project of the West Wing of Pakistan over the East.
Since the late 1970s, some identity dualism of Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh has resurfaced. A group of Bengali Muslims still put the Islamic identity ahead of Bengaliness, compounding the issue further.
Then, who are the Bengalis and what are the key features that constitute being Bengali? The subaltern theorist Ahmed Sofa argues that at the core of the Bengali identity lies the vast majority of people of Bengal from the lower cultural and socio-economic strata, their historical evolution, and the folk culture.
He tends to negate the preeminence of colonial and post-colonial sanskritized Bengali high culture and identity, thereof in favour of the subaltern masses. He is also dismissive about the urban Bengaliness that was led by the East Pakistani and later Bangladeshi middle class.
But there are contradictions in his conceptions. Can there really be an identity formation without a collective consciousness for the same? There were some discrete peasant rebellions in various parts of colonial Bengal, but those failed to gain any Bengal spread, bonding, and lasting momentum.
On the other hand, the Calcutta-led colonial Bengali identity of high culture of the educated caste of Hindus had a gradual growth and later included all Hindus of Bengal. It also made a few half-hearted attempts to include the Muslims. However, nowadays most educated Muslims of West Bengal have accepted this Bengali identity, but by retaining the key features of their Bengali Muslim culture.
A parallel Bengali nationalism started developing in the 1950s and 1960s in East Pakistan as the Bengali-speaking Muslims faced the neo-colonialism of the West Pakistanis. The cultural side of it was a mixture. It borrowed from Calcutta high culture and also promoted the folk culture of East Bengal.
The political and historical journey created a divergence between the two streams. This Bengali nationalism also tried to take the East Bengali Hindus on board. It came to fruition in 1971 with the revolutionary independence of secular Bangladesh. But, by then, the two major strands of Bengali identity had been crystalized — one dominated by the Bengali Hindus of West Bengal and the other by the Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh.
The Bengali Hindu identity started with the affluent Brahmin, Baidya, and Kayastha who actually are a small fraction of the total Bengali Hindus. However, with social and political changes eg, universal adult suffrage in Bengal, it expanded its base to include all castes of Bangla dialects-speaking regions in Bengal.
On the other hand, the Muslim ashrafs, ajlafs, and the mixed category gradually got diluted in the newly emerged urban middle class of East Bengal and later Bangladesh between 1950s and 1980s, completing the formation of the core of the Bengali Muslim. This new middle class has been the melting pot of older stratifications. This group adhered to a mixed culture of Calcutta, East Bengali folk, and moderate Bengali Islam. However, fresh imports of ideologies from West Asia often hindered its smoother transition into a modest one.
The schism between these two groups of Bengalis also persisted because of a few other complex factors. The migration of a large number of Bengali hindus from East Bengal to West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura for both pull and push factors had been chief among those. Also, there are conflicting historical views between these two groups with regards to inter-community socio-economic justice and also with regards to the prime torrents of Bengal’s mass socio-culture.
Sometimes, there seems to be a clash of communal egos between these two, and mutual disinterest in each other’s versions. The Bengali Hindu had been the hegemonic one till 1947 and it continued with that notion even after. It had a very strong and overdeveloped cultural and intellectual sway, followed by the socio-economic rise of Bengali Hindus with selective and extensive favouritism from the British. It hardly made any honest attempt to include the Bengali-speaking Muslims. Bengali Muslims have fought back lately through their political assertiveness.
While Bangladeshis consider their Bengali nationalism as a nation state ideology, West Bengalis, as of now, consider it a sub-nationalism under the rubric of Indian nationalism. Now, BJP has come up with Hindu nationalism to add further confusion to the ideas. Hindi language and culture is seeping into the domain, with Indian state and corporate backing, that once was proud of its Bengali high culture.
Nationalism is a term denoting a certain identity category. Political and social scientists have described its nature and genesis in detail and sometimes in varying ways. Essentially, it is a kind of identity where a reasonably lasting group solidarity is at the heart of it.
Language accompanied by some common culture is a critical denominator but not the sole determinant. History, religio-culture, group interests, etc, can also come into play. The difference between modern nationalism and other kinds of identities is that nationalism normally is accompanied by a distinctive common political aspiration of the group.
Hence, the Bengaliness of West Bengal seems more to be a sub-nationalism under dubious Indian nationalism, at least for now. Yet, it is hard to say the Bengali identities of Bangladesh and West Bengal are different enough to be entirely separate nations or groups; there is so much in common.
It’s still a fluid state with a lot of potential for the long-term, if not for the foreseeable future — contingent to containment and gradual elimination of radical elements from society.
Political units and their character can also create or shape identities and influence its evolutionary dynamics. It becomes the locus of the social and political actions limited by political boundaries. Many of the old affinities fade away. Bengali nationalism of Bangladesh went through all its experimental or transitional phases — first in colonial united Bengal, then in Pakistan period.
In the process, it has tossed out the elements it could not digest. Liberal Bengali Muslims have created their own intellectual space and now have their own narrative and discourse on Bengal’s history, culture, and nationalism which is considerably different from the Calcatian one, if not as rich; but it,now, has a lasting audience.
As a nation state Bangladesh has done reasonably well with its own cultural and ideological domain to hold the population together. Its protected market, entrepreneurship, indigenous capital formation, international trade and investment relations, remittance inflow, and urbanization have resulted in significant economic advancement, human development, and poverty alleviation.
All these positive changes have infused new life in its intellectual sphere. Bengalis of Bangladesh now understand self, the region, and the wider world in their own way. But, it also has its stresses and strains. Social justice for all groups — economic and communal — was central to the Bangladesh revolution of 1971.
Rise of global radical Islam and its proliferation into post-1975 society of Bangladesh is working as a spoiler. Despite the efforts from the secular dispensations of later times, a monster has been unleashed, which has its own support network of survival. To retreat is no easy mission. It’s to be seen how the supposed progressive Bengali nationalism of Bangladesh deals with this existential challenge.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.