The multiplicity of our identities

Namia Akhtar | Published: 00:00, Sep 02,2018 | Updated: 18:10, Sep 01,2018


Bangladeshi people have not decended from a singular identity, rather, we are decendents of ethnically diversified groups. In this context, this present practice of our country is indicating towards the formation and promotion of a singular Bengali identity-which is a highly problematic issue. Namia Akhtar discusses the importance of developing a heterogenious structure of identification rather than a homogenious one. 

Some scholars criticise that Bangladeshis are suffering from a persistent identity vacuum. But how can we define ourselves as a nation? Is the development of singular Bengali or a Muslim identity essential to be a Bangladeshi?

Homogeneity is an artificial construction, as borders are artificial boundaries that define a nation-state. Even Japan which claims to be the most homogenous nation-state in the world constitutes of other ethnic and linguistic groups. Similarly, not all Bangladeshis are Bengalis or Muslims, nonetheless, the character of our state swings between religious (read: Islamic) and ethnic, or a combination of both. Other identities do not find representation. The Chakma, Marma, or Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and the numerous other different ethnic, religious groups do not find any expression in our national discourse. Construction of a unified national identity is essential for formulating better governance, but it does not have to be singular in nature. The fundamental principle of toleration is the acceptance of pluralism or the acceptance of the multiplicity of our existence. First of all, there is no notion of pure Bengalis. Bengalis are a mixed ethnic group that constitutes of Arabs, Persians, Mongols. In other words, we are the product of the indigenised Mughals who ruled India. Many of our ancestors did not even speak Bengali as their mother tongues were Persian, Arabic or Urdu.

Amartya Sen in his piece 'Violence, Identity, and Poverty' argues that it is not poverty rather the dominance of a singular identity that is the major source of conflicts around the world. Sen found it puzzling that Kolkata, despite being a poor city, has a lower homicide rate in comparison to other cities such as New York that has a higher GDP per capita, and found that the coexistence of multiple groups in Kolkata prevented a higher homicide rate. This study has shown that a syncretic culture is essential in preventing violent conflict. The Partition of India in 1947, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are examples of violence for the preservation of a singular identity.

Similarly, Karen Barkey stated in one of her lectures, which she delivered in Venice in June 2018, that the Ottoman Empire was successful in comparison to its contemporaries because it institutionalised pluralism by allowing multiple legal systems to function. Moreover, minority rights were protected as the integration of different ethnic and religious groups constituted a part of the empire’s policy. When Suleiman the Magnificient encountered pressure to exterminate the Jews, he replied‚ each flower is unique unto itself and beautiful, but by complementing each other they create a greater magnificence through their interaction. He later explained that he ruled over various ethnic and religious groups, and these constituted the strength of his empire.

As a state, we have constantly been struggling to define ourselves. These examples above and numerous other studies show that accepting pluralism allows a state to realise its creative potential. The United States, despite the Trump administration’s takeover,attracts the brightest minds in the world. This is because the USA, even today does not have a singular construction of national identity. One can be a Bangladeshi-American, an Indian-American, a Chinese-American, these multiplicities are still allowed to coexist to some extent. Similarly, the different religious groups within Bangladesh, the different ethnicities that we have are the strengths of our nation.The sooner we recognise this, the better it would be for preserving our national interest. According to the great Indian philosopher Kautilya, national interest lies in preserving the well-being of the population. The well-being of the population can only be preserved through proper representation. Representation of the population will enable people to take ownership of their country and be proud citizens. This will unlock the creative potentials of our country.

The construction of a singular national identity has proven to be perilous for any nation. The artificial construction of homogeneity is only suitable for a wartime situation, as raw emotions are needed to fight wars. However, for preserving our national interest, we must have policy approaches that promote inclusion of under-represented groups. Psychologists have shown that people from different backgrounds have different ideas for finding the solution to a given set of problems, which make a particular solution more creative and diversified.

Presently in Bangladesh, the dominant Sunni identity is presiding over all other forms of identity. And its dominant character has given rise to sectarianism. When I was growing up as a child, there was no notion of Shi’a, Sunni or Ahmeddiya. I was not even aware that Islam had different sects until I became a teenager. Times have changed, the Sunni identity has become more prominent for us than ever before. Thanks to the politicians’ usage of Islam as a political tool, the syncretic nature of our country is gradually fading. This signals that a dangerous trend is on the rise, and our country is walking in the footsteps of Pakistan. If we want to protect Bangladesh from turning into another Pakistan, a failing state, it is essential to recognise the multiplicity of our identities.

Namia Akhtar is a Masters student of political science at SAI, Heidelberg University.

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