|Identifying a crisis of identity
Shahid Alam scythes through a work on Bangladesh's political complexities
A nation, in one scholar's reasonably comprehensive characterization, denotes “people whose common identity creates a psychological bond and a political community. Their political identity usually comprises such characteristics as a common language, culture, ethnicity and history. More than one nation may comprise a state, but the terms nation, state, and country are often used interchangeably. A nation-state is a state is a state populated primarily by the people of one nationality.” Essentially, nationalism is a state of the mind of those who feel they belong together as a nation. Bangladesh is an old nation embodied in a new nation-state. Khan Md. Lutfor Rahman, however, in Nation Building Problems in Bangladesh: A Socio-Economic-Political Perspective, states at the outset: “Bangladesh is a new nation with multiethnic and multi-religious plurality of population.” Halfway through the book, though, he acknowledges that “The Genesis of the nationhood of Bangladesh has a pretty long history. Its history stretches back to the ancient period.” Rahman's book is similarly uneven in quality, some insightful analysis coexisting with some incoherent material and the occasional sloppy research work.
For a subject matter as momentous as nation building problems in Bangladesh, a more compact authoritative work was in order. One might be bewildered in trying to figure out how a largely ethnically, linguistically, and religiously homogenous population is still searching for national integrity and identity thirty eight years after having emerged as a sovereign independent nation-state. The author progresses along his stated objectives: to find answers to the questions of whether a cohesive society is possible through dealing satisfactorily with the problems minorities face, what the problems are in fixing national identity, whether national unity cannot be achieved by closing the gap between the rich and the poor, how the caretaker government could be made more efficacious in holding free, fair, and neutral election, and how the legitimacy of governance could be ascertained. The answers provided are lopsided in incisiveness and virtue.
The author expends the maximum number of pages on “Minorities of Bangladesh and Their Alienation” (Chapter 1), followed closely by “Religious Symbolism and Problems of National Identity” (Chapter 2). Khan makes a particularly sharp comment: “In Bangladesh the minority problems have been suppressed through constitutional practices and minorities have been alienated from the body politic.” As a result, “centrifugal feelings of the minority communities are thus created which destroy the centripetal forces.” This is very true, although one may justifiably feel that the author apportions disproportionate blame on the majority populace, in the process giving the impression that this factor is the major culprit in preventing national cohesiveness.
Khan identifies a vexing identity crisis bedeviling Bangladesh: the one between secular ideals and religious ideology. He traces the genesis of the issue that grew out of a non-issue, and comes down hard on the side of a secular identity as exemplified by Bangali, as distinct from Bangladeshi, nationalism. Actually, this controversy should not even exist, as we are Bangalis as a nation as well as Bangladeshis in terms of nationality. Some of the author's arguments in this regard are confusing and/or fallacious. For example, try to figure out this sentence: “Citizenship labels are determined by the constitution of the state, but nation is a nationality that has acquired independence.” Or, in order to prove that the identity of Bangladeshi nationals should be Bangali, he stretches logic to ridiculous length to draw parallels with UK nationals being called English or Britons, US citizens Americans, those of Sri Lanka Ceylonese, and so on. Well, unless I am mistaken, the citizens of Sri Lanka are known as Sri Lankans, while it would be a mouthful to call those of the USA United States of Americans, and UK is also known as Great Britain, and hence its nationals are usually called British (Briton is quaint, and rarely used, while the term English is properly used when referring to the people of England, a constituent of Great Britain).
Khan also has this to say in “Nationalism: Conflicts in Political Perception” (Chapter 3): “Joy Bangla” is the appropriate slogan for this country (which it could be, and a view that the author has every right to hold), and rejects the alternative “Bangladesh Zindabad” because “Zindabad” is not a Bangla word, and which is used in Pakistan as “Pakistan Zindabad”. This is a curious argument because “Awami League” is also bereft of any Bangla word (“Awami” being Urdu and “League” English), but no one (and certainly not the author) seriously thinks of the party as being anything other than being representative of the Bangali nation as well as the nation-state of Bangladesh! And, regarding the popular notion of Mohammad Ali Jinnah being the originator of the two-nation theory (Khan names Sir Saiyad Ahmed Khan, Allama Iqbal, and Chowdhury Rahmat Ali as earlier proponents), two figures in British Indian history, one rather obscure, and the other quite prominent, both Hindus, had also advocated that theory. In fact, the first thought of dividing India on communal lines was put forward by Bhai Parmanand Chibber in a small booklet in 1923, followed in 1924 by a few articles by Lala Lajpat Rai that were published in The Tribune of Punjab (cited in Military Plight of Pakistan, Volume 1, Col. M.N. Gulati, Manas Publications, 2000).
There are other confusing, contradictory information in the book. After stating that all the promises of Jamaat-e-Islami “could not persuade the majority voters in any election to vote for it which proves that their voting behaviour is secular,” Khan almost immediately comes up with, “Good relations between Bangladesh and India by solving the outstanding problems between the two countries may also inspire the people to cherish secular political ideal.” Surely, the majority of the Bangladeshis cannot exhibit secular voting behaviour and simultaneously gets inspired to become secular by India's example! As the author's graphics show, Jamaat-e-Islami progressively received less and less share of the percentage of popular votes in the 1991, 1996, and 2001 parliamentary elections, an admirable pattern attesting to the innate secularism of the average Bangladeshi.
Whether, in the author's view, closing the elite-mass gap (and it seems to be growing with each passing day) will actually facilitate nation building in Bangladesh is a matter open to debate, but the irrefutable fact is that such a chasm exists. Comments cited in the book, like “Pakistan's 22 families had become Bangladesh's 2000,” or, “The number of Bengali multimillionaires was only two in 1975, it became two hundred by 1981” eloquently attest to that unwelcome phenomenon. “Elite-Mass Gap: A Stigma of the Nation” (Chapter 4), nonetheless, is one of the better-written segments of the book. The one following, “Legitimacy Crises: A Handicap in Nation Building” (Chapter 5) is, to say the least, disappointing: one-dimensional, in places, incoherent, often confusing, and reading more like demagoguery than a scholarly research work. Nation Building Problems in Bangladesh: A Socio-Economic-Political Perspective has its moments, but generally disappoints as a solid scholarly endeavour on a plague afflicting Bangladesh almost from the day it emerged as a sovereign independent nation-state.
Dr. Shahid Alam is Head, Media and Communication Department, Independent University Bangladesh.