Bangladesh, Bengal, or identity nationalism and fundamentalism

Afsan Chowdhury | Updated at 08:19pm on February 20, 2018

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BENGALI nationalism means several things and is interpreted accordingly. Several notions operate in this space and they do not mean the same thing. Cultural identities and political nationalism are also used to imply the same though they signify different objectives.

‘Bengali’ means people who speak Bangla and is a major identity that is cultural. But the Bengalis live in more than one history with different political identities. They have acted very differently in very different socio-political spaces. They have even fought and killed each other. So, what we mean by Bengali nationalism is not only subject to interpretation but may carry the seeds of considerable confusion.

 

Identity fundamentalism

PART of this at least comes from the notion of never-changing cultural identity or the permanence of another. Once people have occupied one identity space, it is assumed by some/many that it is the only or paramount identity that is possible/acceptable. This is the fundamentalist approach to identity which believes that identity can only be one and the rest must be resisted.

The result is the confusion that at some point becomes political positions which prevent the formation of the natural process of self-seeking by people based on objective conditions.

Does Bengali means an East/West Bengali? At some point of time, they may have had some relevance but even then it was an identity conflict as Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims did not share the same history inclusively. This is the most sensitive point for pan-Bengali identity theorists. But the one Bengali nomenclature is very problematic as state seeking politics existed based on the differentiation.

Even the United Bengal Movement of 1947 was an attempt to forge a multi-national identity of political convenience but its collapse shows that it was not a concrete identity to which a significant section of people were loyal to.

 

Identity: space, time?

DOES it mean that it is an identity of space and geography? That is Bengal/East Bengal/East Pakistani, etc. The shared geography is equal to shared identity equation is simple and logical, yet not wholly concrete either. Sharing space and identity does not mean sharing the same history. The two hostile populations of Bengalis and Biharis who shared the same geography, same political party before 1947 did not belong to the same history. After 1947, they became the most virulent of enemies and in 1971 killed each other. So, geography sharing is not enough.

This example applies to the Hindu and Muslim Bengalis sharing the same land but as separate communities. It was noted as early as 1770 when the fakirs and sannyasin fought the common enemy but in segregation. Territory sharing, therefore, appears to be an inadequate condition for common identity formation.

So, are we Bengali Muslims or Bengali Hindus as cultural and political nationalism goes? But this does not appear to be water-tight compartments either because from 1947 onwards, both the groups came closer together or forged a common identity to fight against Pakistan. But what the name of this identity was is not final as they could well be Bangladeshis, East Pakistanis or Bengalis. They could also be all those plus Hindus and Muslims who had decided to form an alliance to construct an identity that led to the political nationalism of 1971.

 

Identity: the cluster model?

OUR identity seems to be part of several or a cluster of them where identity priorities change according to historical need. And around that cluster grew the politics that delivered the state. Or is it that identities themselves are never concrete let alone final but a set of menu from which we choose which suits our convenience at any given point of history?

Going by evidence, what seems certain is that identities are neither permanent nor fundamental since a person apparently seems to switch identities if one looks at pre- and post-1947 politics. In our case, it was the state language issue. Does it mean that the cultural identity of state language overrode political identities?

Language-based dominant identity is based on the assumption that people of present Bangladesh did not have the collective intelligence before 1947. They went through a long complex political identity formation processes as well as rejecting a few identities. But the pan-Bengali theorists argue that soon after 1947, they found that they were wrong, ignored the past colonial experience and went about making amends to fit into another interpretation which contests the own history. This route also makes the politics of Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman look like stupid errors.

Perhaps we should explore the politics of identity making itself and not just which our identity is. Whose interest is served by insisting on a mono-identity, be it linguistic, ethnic, religious or cultural ones.

 

History and identity are both multiple

IDENTITIES are multiple, various, prone to shifting over time in response to the objective challenges faced by people in a given history. A person has one and many identities and will adjust as history demands. Perhaps the identity of a people changes because none of the above are final and even history is multiple, not just identities.

The role of Ekushey in the production of the nationalism that birthed Bangladesh deserves to be analysed in the rich context and background of the intersectional framework of identity formation that it deserves not emotional appeals.

 

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.