The Financial Express

Bellwether Bangladesh: 'Identity' & South Asia's 'partition'

| Updated: October 21, 2017 18:17:31

Bellwether Bangladesh: 'Identity' & South Asia's 'partition'

August 2017 ended as a loaded month, when two already pregnant terms, 'partition' and 'identity', only ballooned further. Positioning the over-denied former term retroactively, and marketing the too-personified latter universally demand more than just 21st Century attention.



In the wake of the British Empire and Pakistan, our identity struggled between the endogenous and exogenous interpretations. Of many endogenous 'moments', Rabindranath Tagore's literary works, capped in our national anthem, Amar Sonar Bangla, and our language movement, immortalised in February 1952, stand out. Exogenously, we appeared as tea-pickers/farmers/fishermen to East India Company money-makers, permanent protestors to British colonial officers in 'Calcutta', 'mosquitoes' to Pakistani soldiers, illegal immigrants to Indians, or a 'bottomless-pit' to Cold War US foreign-policy makers like Henry Kissinger.



Interpreting this tension through multiple analytical levels helps grapple with the 'partition-identity' puzzle. At the unit level (be it individual, family/clan/nationality), we Bangalees can claim to be more Bangladeshi than Indians can say about being Indian or Pakistanis can say about being Pakistani: some Indians/Pakistanis feel like 125 per cent Indian/Pakistani, others 75 per cent; but a larger proportion of Bangladeshis hover around the 100 per cent mark because of population homogeneity, which narrows gaps between 'in- and out-crowds'.



In a small-group setting, say South Asian, Bangladeshis, for example, have a tendency to absorb external traits: instead of just dal-bhaat, perhaps a chapati/paratha enters the dietary dictionary, or at a more sophisticated level, instead of visiting a Gulshan hospital, perhaps one in Kolkata. These tendencies expand at the broadest level, among many countries: using alliterated English for shop names, for example, regardless of correct spelling (so long the term is foreign) in short, anything 'foreign' out-stripping anything homegrown is becoming our eleventh commandment.



Though common universally, these traits involve a wider spread from the first level to the third in Bangladesh because of its population homogeneity (heterogeneous bodies carry built-in diversity even in their most nationalistic/patriotic/nostalgic moment), and relative poverty (the higher the income, the more mainstream-mindedness, and vice versa).


Placed in this discourse, 'partition' shows its true colour: an imported beast. No 'partition' rattled our history until 1905 (Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy sought unsuccessfully to revoke it from 1947-8), then in 1947 (our irreversible discomfort culminated in 1971). Since it played such a pivotal part in our identity-making, the 20th Century deserves far more scrutiny than it has received, particularly in aligning 'partition' to 'identity': without being selective, the 'partition' exercise initiated by an English cotemporary should start more meaningful conversations.



The thrust of this article, however, is to balance our external absorption by projecting our domestic socio-cultural elements abroad. We will find more identity-enhancing soft-power here than through all the 1971 hard-power expended and post-1980s RMG (ready-made garments) hard-cash earned.



By choice, compulsion, or circumstances, English (no matter how broken or peppered), more than Bangla, is on the ascendancy (note how Microsoft Word underlines not Bengal, but Bangla, as an erroneous term in its programming, no less in the very country of its origin!); foreign visits and schooling grabs as much more figurative as literal mileage than domestic; and, of course, Internet exposure to, and immersion in, jargons, quips, profanities, and treacheries from the widest external playground easily trounce classroom learning, textbooks, and vocabulary, even if imparted by an international guest, all symbolising imported exogenous elements. We have not been sticky-footed exporting our endogenous socio-cultural traits, as a discussion of our tea-exports and Nobel prize-winners explain: in fact some of our bellwether moments lie right here.


South Asia's slow and tortuous drift into statehood clearly shows 'global' and 'South Asia' as components of Bangalee identity. When founded in 1599, the East India Trading Company's goal was to explore commercial exchanges, not seize wealth of the world's largest economy, India under the Mughal Dynasty. Even the Indian heartland was not its target, only the eastern part where enchanting tea was produced. Subsequent sugar additives from West Indies (not Rajasthan or Punjab in India, but Barbados and Jamaica, for example, in the Caribbean), made tea a British trademark, not Bangalee (nor Chinese): an English cup, Assamese tea, and Tate & Lyle sugar/sugar-cubes created the late-afternoon sip every Buckingham Palace occupant had to make time for to show status, then cultivate subjects to follow suit, eventually convert every colonial 'specie', even those who produced two of those components.



It was just a hop, skip, and jump (and far more conniving) from there to create the 'Crown Jewel' (India) of the largest empire (British) where 'the sun would never set'. Robert Clive's treacherous input is part of popular South Asian folklore; but less well-known is how the empire's 'crown jewel', India, depended upon its own 'crown jewel' province: Bengal (phonetically Bangla, since no Bangla alphabet or intonation can convey the English version, which more than half the population cannot correctly pronounce).


The first Asian to win any Nobel Prize was from this locale. Rabindranath Tagore uniquely claiming the national anthem of two disparate South Asian countries (and inspiring Sri Lanka Matha), extended our socio-cultural dissemination abroad. Although he settled in Calcutta and his Shantiniketan has institutionalised the Bangla language, his 1913 Nobel prize-winning piece, Gitanjali, originated in turn-of-the-century Shelaidaha, Kushtia. Similarly for the 1998 Nobel Economics Prize-winner, Amartya Sen. Born in Shantiniketan, Amartya's father, Ashutosh, was himself born in Dhaka's outskirts and taught chemistry at Dhaka University. Other card-carrying Bangalee Nobel prize-winners includes Mohammad Yunus/Grameen Bank in 2006, and Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the Macedonian Catholic nun whose 68 years of helping Calcutta's poor as Mother Teresa notched the 1979 Nobel Peace prize (and in September 2016 became a saint). If four out of South Asia's 10 Nobel prize-winners have this same provincial attachment, surely there must be something more than language, economics, humanitarian work and peace sprouting from India's east that feed into identity formation. No other South Asian province can claim as many, even if the three South Asian Nobel recipients holding another citizenship are added (two from Pakistan's Punjab): after 'Bengal', out of the net 13 South Asian winners, Tamil Nadu joins West Punjab with two. 



If Bangladesh was the bellwether of globalising, for example, the tea industry (before any other save silk, spices, species, and slaves), the British Empire's Crown Jewel, Indian independence from centuries-old Muslim rule, South Asia's presence in the Nobel-prize pantheon, an old practice of microcredit financing, and producing, in the process, the world's largest non-governmental organisation (BRAC), then something more enduring than a 'partition' discourse demands 'identity' attention. One dimension, of course, is globalisation, as exemplified above, exposing a relaxed 'identity'; but another, ferocious patriotism, stemmed from threats, as in the Language Movement and 1971. The 1947 'partition' mindset connects with neither, but has become so indelible a part of our experiences that it cannot be ignored.



With Tagore's works fanning out of Bengal, Sen's social welfare research disseminating Bangladeshi-type poverty-control measures elsewhere, Mother Teresa's similar poverty conquest symbolising the country's basket-case upgrade into middle-income society, and Yunus's/BRAC's microcredit pathway out of the rural/traditional/agricultural sector into a manufacturing and urban future, Bangladesh's multifaceted soft-power resources should soften any hard-landing of the '1947 partition' mindset into our ongoing kaleidoscopic journey. Targeting oral migrant histories from the 1947 participants, even the small Bangladeshi sample may make broader historical splashes, strengthening our capacity to handle any 'partition' discomfort. If the 20th Century was a 'partition'-plastered historical aberration, there is no better a time to return to the norm than right now in the early 21st Century.



Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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