The Bangladesh metaphor

Tahmid Zami | Published at 04:42pm on March 27, 2018


WHAT is the meaning of the independence of Bangladesh? In South Asia after Bangladesh: Some Aspects of the National Question in India (2017), Salimullah Khan undertakes the task of construing the meaning of Bangladesh for South Asia. The book contains a lucid and systematic problematisation of the national question in South Asia, drawing inspiration from the oeuvre of Ahmed Sofa. An underlying wager of Khan’s engagement with the problematic is that 1971 is not only the negation, but also a permanent reproblematisation of the two senses of 1947.

When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, they worked in tandem with the Hindu and Muslim leadership of the land to contrive a solution to the national question. The subsequent cleaving of India, a ‘country of many nations, languages, and cultures’, into two super-states — whether quasi-confessional or otherwise — was on the basis of two-nation theory, that elided over the socio-cultural plurality. Ahmed Sofa imputed partition to the priorities of ‘Hindu and Muslim bourgeoisie’, who had their way in absence of an organised role of the ‘neglected regions, peoples, and cultural identities’ of India. (Sofa, 1993) The second sense of 1947 was the ‘one nation theory’ of Congress, a vision that remained unrealised, yet decisively impacted the negotiation process in the run-up to partition.

Against this background, the counterfactuals presented by, inter alia, the Cabinet Mission Plan hung over the actuality of the two states, more patently in the formative years. In East Bengal, the first manifesto of Awami Muslim League in 1949, the 1954 election manifesto, and the six points in 1966 drew on the anti-centrist prospects offered by such a counterfactual. Pakistan, unable to cede ground to such a possibility, collapsed on March 25, 1971. For 24 years the identity of Pakistan was an unresolved question, and its ruling classes could not entrust its resolution to the peoples. Hence they kept withholding a general election, until forced to hold the one in 1970 to fateful consequences.

The event of Bangladesh liberation war marked a giant step forward by way of a popular-democratic resolution of the national question. Khan says that ‘the Bangladesh experience, 1947-1971, paved the path to a long-term solution to national questions in South Asia at large’ (p. 13). What then about India, the other successor? Was India more successful in ‘national integration’, a concept that reveals the programmatic, constructivist nature of the nations to become?

The invention of the tradition defining a nation usually works its way back into the past, searching for foundations in an era when it wasn’t yet. For Irfan Habib, nationalities did not exist in the pre-colonial era, as he holds their existence conditional upon emergence of national bourgeoisie. Yet, he recognises existence of a pan-Indian ‘consciousness’ in pre-colonial times. It was only in the colonial era that nationalities emerged, but thanks to the growth of a pan-Indian bourgeoisie, the germs of a unified nation were born. For the great Indian historian, the present is thus not in dissonance with the past.

Achin Vanaik — the other key Indian thinker on nationalism cited by Khan — denies straight out that India is multi-national. In his view, sub-nationalities are neither actual nor actualisable. While stressing on the political and historical construction of nation, Vanaik’s denial of the status of nation or nationality to sub-national ‘movements’ stands on his assessment of what is going to emerge and what is going to die out. He holds that in terms of both might and right, those movements have been more or less successfully contained.

Bangladesh — for Vanaik — is an exception. The question thus arises, is it a fortuitous exception, a nationalism sui generis? Khan begins from a very distinct premise: the emergence of Bangladesh for Khan is a ‘return of the repressed’. What then are the conditions of possibility of such a return?

For Abdur Razzaq, people of Bangladesh — as a part of the Bengali-speaking people — formed a nation because they wanted to. Razzaq goes on to speak about the specificity of Bengali language and literature that provides a basis for such a will. Earlier, the venerable Jadunath Sarkar expatiated on the emergence of Bengali nation thanks to the British colonial wet nursing. Khan notes that when Jadunath’s work was published, Bengali nation ‘already ceased to exist’. What remained then for Bengali nationalism or its return?

In an evaluation of Arab nationalism over its historical course, Rashid Khalidi notes that Arab nationalism is not necessarily the same as pan-Arabism. In 1971, when Indira Gandhi was asked, during her tour to shore up support for Indian position to the liberation struggle of Bangladesh, whether there was a possibility of West Bengal joining the East, she reassured her audience that West Bengal, the more developed of the two, was content as it was. West Bengal, for the Indian prime minister, had a sort of amor fati. In 1971, Ahmed Sofa wrote in his book Jagrata Bangladesh that ‘In the 23 years of Pakistani rule and exploitation, a new nation is born in Bangladesh through struggle, conflict, humiliation and deprivation. The novel identity that it has hewn out through political, cultural and intellectual creativity is far-going in scope’. In 1973, Sofa wrote that the Bengali nationalism of late was ‘but a militant slogan’, so militant only to overcompensate for its feeble grounding. One may add that it appears to be a nationalism whose form and content did not completely coincide, or a nationalism by half. We will return to this question. 

In analysing the national question in India, Khan takes recourse to the Freudian concept of overdetermination. In simple term, it can refer to multiple causal factors, often disparate and even opposing, combining or condensing to produce a symptom or effect. Through Lacan, Khan links overdetermination as a fundamental aspect of language itself. À la Althusser, Khan brings it to bear on his political analysis of the national question in South Asia, which always involves ‘certain processes of overdetermination in the analysis of modes and relations of production, not excluding formations of states and cultures’ (p. 44). Khan cites the Indian academic MSS Pandian who identified two tactics for integration that were adopted in India: first, positing a common ‘Hindu memory’, and second, promotion of Hindi as the preferred, representative, unifying language of the land.  Thus, the rise of Indian bourgeoisie under British tutelage was combined with elevation of Hindi and the ideology of Hindutva. This is a case of overdetermination, or we might add, a historical bloc combining the base and superstructure into a total social formation.

The Congress view of nationalism deserved plaudit for its, well, ‘nationalism’. It rejected the two nation theory in favor of one nation. What was its limit? In 1942, shortly after the passage of Lahore Resolution by the Muslim League, a Congressite Nationalist Bengali Muslim Rezaul Karim wrote a book called Pakistan-er Bichar. Karim argued at length to show how the chimera of Pakistan would exacerbate the communal problem, pose a serious challenge of transfer of people across borders, and so on. He rightly likened the plan for national home for Muslims in Pakistan to the ideology of Zionism, i.e. the position that Jewish people should have a national home. He presciently noted that:

If the four [Muslim-majority] provinces are made national home for Muslims, what would be the advantage? Since those four provinces are not geographically contiguous? Among these, Bangla desh is located so far from the other three that it cannot be united with those. Would the more than half of the population of Bengal then migrate to far away Punjab, forgetting the five or six hundred years of memory? Why would the Muslims of the remaining seven provinces for that matter leave their homes to settle anew in other provinces? Even if they do that, their languages are not the same. After settling in new national home, there would be such a clamor over languages, that all hopes for Muslim integrity would be crushed (Karim, 1942, p. 82, author’s translation).

Karim legitimately dismissed the two-nation theory, but his answer was ‘one nation theory’ that could only brush aside the question of linguistic and cultural difference:

I admit that the entire India does not have a single language, a single religion, or complete communal accord. But we cannot deny that the political and economic interest of everyone in India is the same.... Linguistic difference is entirely a provincial affair… For many eras, England did not have a single language. The languages of the nations – Angles, Britons, Normans – were simultaneously in usage in England. But over time the entire England adopted one language. (Karim, 1942, pp. 34-35)

We can look at such an approach only through the prism of the subsequent language movements waged in this region. Karim goes on:

Lack of an all Indian language would not pose a problem to establishing an Indian nationality. Besides there won’t be a unitary government here. Federal system would the ideal political system for India. The provincial languages will be unharmed. There might not be an all Indian language as yet, but there are efforts to that end. Probably in the future some one particular language may gain the dignity of being the state language (Karim, 1942, pp. 34-35).

Karim’s ultimate conclusion was that: ‘the national ideal of Congress is free from all defects. Thwarting Hindu communalism on the one hand and Muslim communalism on the other, the national ideal that Congress has upheld has not been surpassed by anyone else’s so far in India’. (p. 42) That was in 1942. Shot through with a federalist vision, Karim’s prediction about what Congress wanted India to be was wide off the mark.

In the decisive conjuncture of 1971, the international community judged the question of the Bangladesh liberation struggle against the shadow of Biafran struggle in Nigeria. Alamgir Kabir explained the reasons why the Bangladeshi struggle was different from that of Biafra in his radio commentaries in Swadhin Bangla Betar. DN Mankekar, an Indian journalist, also echoed the same reasons in his book published in 1971. We can summarise these reasons in three points: (1) Majority: Bengalis were the majority, and hence couldn’t be dubbed as secessionists; (2) Non-Contiguity: East Bengal was not contiguous with the rest of Pakistan; (3) Modality: Bengalis first pursued peaceful means for attaining their goal until forced to resort to arms.

In South Asia, however, Bangladesh struggle raised other specters. As Khan hints, the conditions of possibility of Indian nationalism are the very reasons that led to the initial trepidation in the policy of Indian government towards the liberation struggle of Bangladesh.

Claude Levi-Strauss suggests that one’s relation to the other can have two kinds of relationships: first is anthropophagy, i.e. eating up or absorbing the other through assimilation, while the second form is anthropemy, i.e. ejecting or vomiting out the other. The American professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva reminds us that there can be racism without ‘racists’. Politics in South Asia at frequent intervals roil up with the question of so-called ‘illegal immigrants’. I would like to mark it as symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

It is not necessary that the meaning of the liberation movement may be readily apparent to the class that gave leadership to the struggle — the ‘lactodermic’ middle class of East Bengal. A text may have a certain semantic autonomy from its authors. We would finish our article with a few words on what independence means for Bangladesh itself.

What then for civic nationalism, or liberal nationalism as we could call it? Khan elsewhere indicated that it was a popular-democratic movement that formed the foundation of the liberation struggle for Bangladesh. ‘Democracy is the practical reason for the establishment of a state by Bengalis in Bangladesh’. Yet, like the ancient Greek democracy that excluded the slaves, modern Western democracy reserves ‘the monopoly in the privilege of ruling’ for the class of owners (Khan, 2007, p. 61).

There remains the residual question of culture and identity. Khan notes that ‘establishment of a secular state in this country is a commitment of the 1971 liberation war’. The state must be no less neutral with respect to ethnic communities. Sofa plumbed the issue’s depth: ‘I believe that our main responsibility in this conjuncture is to make every community — religious, ethnic or otherwise — a stakeholder in the fresh historical course created through independence in Bangladesh…. We need to discover first of all where we are one.’ (Sofa, 1982)

In other words, the resolution of the national question of Bangladesh is probably in some measure also complicated (Khan, 2007, pp. 52 & 60). One aspect of this complexity is that Bangladeshi politics ‘has still not been able to extricate itself from the organic crisis of politics of this continent’ (Khan, 2013). Our metaphor is probably caught up in this difference.



Salimullah Khan, South Asia after Bangladesh: Some Aspects of the National Question in India, Apostrophe, Number 1, Dhaka: Center for Advanced Theory, ULAB, 2017. 

Rezaul Karim, Pakistan-er Bichar, Kolkata: Book Company Limited, 1942.

Claude Levi-Strauss, “A Little Glass of Rum”, Tristes Tropiques, Tr. by John Russell, New York: Criterion Books, 1961.

Salimullah Khan, “Rashtrer Hridrog”, Shorbojon, 2013.

Salimullah Khan, “Sofa-Chandrika: Behat Biplob 1971”, in Behat Biplob 1971: Ahmed Sofa Mohafejkhana 1, Dhaka: Anwesha, 2007, pp. 42–88.

Ahmed Sofa, “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”, Rajnitir Lekha, 1993.

Ahmed Sofa, “Bangladesh: Rashtrer Challenge ebong Gontobyo”, Amar Kotha o Onyanyo Probondho, Dhala: Maola Brothers, 2002. [originally published in Ganakantha on June 3, 1982]

Achin Vanaik, “Is there a Nationality Question in India”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 23, Issue No. 44, 29 Oct, 1988.