Myth and reality of halcyon days of Bengal

Children lay a wreath in memory of the fallen heroes of the Liberation War on Independence Day at the National Memorial in Savar 	—bdnews24.com photo Children lay a wreath in memory of the fallen heroes of the Liberation War on Independence Day at the National Memorial in Savar —bdnews24.com photo

As Bangladesh celebrated its 51st anniversary of independence as a sovereign state, politico-economists and social thinkers have continued to make appraisal of the nation's half century journey. It started in 2021, when the country celebrated the golden jubilee of its independence. Thanks to the ominous presence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country being in its second year, Bangladesh maintained restraint in its celebration. Had the nation been beyond the range of the corona assault, the occasion would have witnessed dozens of scholarly seminars, symposia and discourses on the 50-year-long independence of Bangladesh. The country has passed through many a transformation in all the sectors of its socio-economic realities since the 1970s. Those have taken place since it broke free from the shackles of injustice, exploitation and the brutalities meted out to the unarmed Bengalees. The reign of nightmarish horrors didn't go unchallenged this time. With the start of an all-out War of Liberation in 1971 against the Pakistani occupation forces, which lasted for nine months, the whole nation took the resolve not to give up until full victory, i.e. the national independence.

True to the wise words that freedom is easy to achieve but hard to retain, Bangladesh had to pass through many tests and crises in its early years. Thanks to its latent spirit of indomitability, it didn't give in to the man-made and nature-induced adversities visiting the country one after another. On the socio-economic front, the country found out the ways to emerge as self-reliant nation. The branding of Bangladesh as being a 'basket case' eventually turned meaningless and a deliberate denigration of the country and its people. Since the year of 2021 the country has been dreaming of graduating from its LDC status to one of a developing nation. The country hopes to restart its campaign in this regard after the world comes fully free of the impacts of the pandemic. The task is difficult and complex by its nature. But it is not unachievable. Against a volatile global backdrop, made worse by the Russia-Ukraine war and its economic impacts, many Bangladesh-specific issues now warrant in-depth brainstorming. As time wears out, the world keeps inching toward a new reality every day. All this has created a ground for a special discussion on the present and past Bangladesh.         

The condition of villages in the 19th and early 20th century Bengal, especially of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, receives a detailed portrayal made by the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. The poet has extensively visited the poverty-stricken and highly marginalised villages standing in clusters on the two banks of the then mighty Padma River. Tagore was assigned by his father Debendranath Tagore to look after the villagers living in their vast 'zemindari' jurisdiction. The Poet Tagore was a reluctant master, 'korta' in Bangla. Rather, he was highly interested in the enthralling beauty of the Padma, Gorai and the other rivers. The ever-changing beauty of the rivers recurs in his poems and short stories. In spite of his fascination for the rivers, the poet didn't fail to cast his probing look into the socio-economic plight of the East Bengal villagers.

In his letters written to his beloved niece Indira in Kolkata, Tagore has narrated in minute detail the acute poverty and endemic diseases that would make the rural life miserable in those days. It was the season of monsoon accompanied by yearly flooding which would affect them the most. The spectre of monsoon and the submersion of their homesteads and croplands would keep troubling them round the year.

As viewed by the social historians and the economic analysts, the undivided Bengal's idyllic past is a sheer myth. Tagore's 'golden Bengal' may have existed in the pre-Sultanate eras. So have Dwijendralal Roy's 'Dhono dhannye pushpe bhora … boshundhara' (A land filled with wealth, food and floral beauty). The Chinese and other travellers have given vivid account of the ancient Bengal in their travel write-ups. In those times, Bengal in the whole sub-continent was one of the handful areas which could boast of a prosperous and fulfilling life. In the modern times, except the river-based beauty of the eastern Bengal and the sun-baked rocky spectacles of a few parts in the western Bengal, the land has few attractions. The curse of poverty became a part of its day-to-day realities after the British East India Company took charge of Bengal, and the adjoining areas and, later, a large part of India. It occurred following the defeat of Sirajuddaula, the Nawab (Ruler) of Bengal-Bihar-Odisha in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The East India Company ruled India until 1857. The British Crown, based in London, assumed control of the sub-continent in that year by using the Government of India Act. Earlier, the great Sepoy Mutiny declared by the 'native' Indian soldiers that spread throughout India, and their painful defeat, expedited the assumption of direct ruling power by the new British Raj.

In fact, the British rulers exercised their colonial power in the sub-continent for two centuries. Earlier, the impact of the 'independent' Nawab's defeat had proved multifaceted. As days wore on, it kept being felt throughout the vast India, except in a few outlying areas populated by staunchly freedom-loving people. However, the case for the Bengalee zeitgeist later kept replicating throughout the sub-continent. But with the announcement of the formal end of the Mughal dynasty in India in 1857, the British colonial rule got itself embedded in the Indian soil presumably for an indefinite period. Thanks to the relentless Indian independence movement, later joined by a separate stream under the name of the Muslim-dominated state of Pakistan, the British colonialists had to leave India. The British Empire in the greater India lasted for 'two hundred' years.

The decline of Bengal's economy and the spoiling of its socio-communal equilibrium began in earnest following the start of the British rule. After the raucous creation of Pakistan, with the eastern Bengal made to be a part of the new state, the new journey of a separate Bengalee nationhood witnessed its germination. The process took only 24 years to complete the cycle. The 1947-1971 journey of East Bengal or, East Pakistan, was an exercise in futility, falsehood, hollow promises, and later, a 9-month-long genocide and the Liberation War. Bangladesh became an independent state. But the bloodied and heroic memories of 1971 continued to haunt its people.

The leaders of eastern Bengal in the mid- and late 1940s portrayed a rosy picture of the province, and lured them into joining the Pakistan state. Many historians term this process of integration with Pakistan as one done by default. Before and after the formation of Pakistan, Bengalee critics opposed the two-wing Pakistan. They were cunningly silenced or put behind bars. In the 24 years of Pakistan's survival, the East Bengal region's socio-economic realities demonstrated a distinctive character of unpredictability. Its fallout remained alive for many years even after the liberation of Bangladesh. East Bengal's socio-economic ordeals reminded many of the phase of the chronically vulnerable times of Bengal in the past. In the recent times of the new millennium, Bangladesh is preparing to step into a new era. An unpredictable pandemic and the spectre of an apocalyptic war overshadow its dreams. Yet the optimist segments of people pin hopes on Bangladesh's spirited journey towards its goal being cherished for long.

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