Smruti S Pattanaik**


The question of identity is a social issue but behind its construction there are potent political forces at work. These forces seek to conceptualize and articulate socio-political grievances of a ‘community’ and convert these grievances into a political tool, which forms the basis of a separate nation state. Therefore, the issue of identity is the most volatile subject in multi-ethnic states. In a multicultural and plural state, the state-hegemonisation and definition of national identity inevitably creates fissiparous tendencies where the nature of the state often fails to take diversity into account.

In the context of the creation of Pakistan and given the history of partition, the state hegemony in crafting a ‘nation’ was an effort to translate the ideological inspiration behind the state formation. At the same time the Hindu dominated Congress opposition created a sort of insecurity regarding the viability of the nation-state. Therefore, the state in its over-zealous attempt to promote and protect an Islamic identity, the basis on which the state was founded, played the role of an ultimate arbitrator of the identity question. The problem with such an overarching authority of the state that defined the existence of ‘self’ within the geographical parameter, persisted in conceiving a political identity that defined the citizenship and gave him an identity and a sense of belongingness to the territory. In the process the state advanced “Islam” as the core of the national identity. In this context Urdu became the defining factor of being a ‘Muslim’ in the new state of Pakistan. Bengalis, the majority community of Pakistan contested this identity of the state. The state addressed the issue but not before providing deep foundational inspiration to the future Bangladesh state.

The history of Bengal defining socio-cultural perimeter and a unique notion of identity went through its socio-cultural evolution spanning over the centuries. The political construct of the Bengali Muslim identity is however not a very old phenomenon. While talking of Bangladesh and the construction of its national identity, one traverses through a long period of history that contributed to the construction and political consolidation of this identity. The problem in studying the evolution of identity arises because its assertion has its own political salience within the context of the debate on nation, nationality and national identity. In the case of Bangladesh, political awakening took a longer time to traverse the religious bonding that the state of Pakistan had crafted as the basis of its nationhood. After 25 years of the partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion, the political history of this region was reconstructed with a second partition on the basis of secular characteristic that formed the lynchpin in the formation of Bangladesh state. The philosophy that drove the passion of the Bengalis was economic and political demands coupled with a strong secular identity, at the core of which lied the Bengali language and Bengali culture. However, the post liberation political developments again brought the issue of religion to the centre stage. In this context, there are certain issues this paper would deal with: First, does the state construction of an identity create a nation? In his context the paper would briefly look into the history of the Bengali Muslims and their syncretic tradition. Then this paper would devolve into the details of how this socio-religious identity got converted into a political identity and the role-played by the elites. Second part will deal with the formation of Pakistan and failure of Pakistan state and the birth of Bangladesh. Lastly, it will analyse the contesting political identities of secular vs religious and the future of the Bangladesh state.

The Construction of ‘Bengali Muslim’ Identity

The construction of the Bengali Muslim identity went through the process of socio-political and cultural evolution. Variety of factors contributed to the shaping of this identity. By its very definition, the Bengali Muslim identity has both linguistic and socio-cultural connotations apart from religious overtures. In the evolution of this identity one could discern a large influence of syncretism that evolved through the religious intermingling, sharing of linguistic heritage and cultural commonality.[1] In this context the sense of ‘self’ as existed then was complimentary rather than contradictory between the two communities. This syncretic tradition that was nurtured due to socio-lingual heritage till today, to a large extent, is a harbinger of affinity between the two communities and has contributed to the growth of secular ethos. Literature, songs and folklore developed its own syncretic tradition and the Bengali language overrode the broad religious divide.

Towards the early eighteenth century, however, the syncretic tradition started melting under the pressure of social realities and political compulsions. This identity took the shape of a political identity where both the Hindu and Muslim communities competed with each other. This fact is discernable in various writings of that period that reflected the differences between the two communities.[2] The literature of this period, barring a few, followed an action-reaction model. The reform movements in both Hinduism and Islam contributed to the consolidation of the two distinct identities based on religious values rather than social.[3] The effort to push a separate sense of identity by orthodox mullahs to purify and to make the Bengali Muslims see themselves as ‘outsiders’ or ‘aliens’ inevitably resulted in their social alienation from the Hindus.[4] The emphasis was to mould a communitarian definition based on religion. With these movements, the complementarities of the Bengali identity gave away to the political conceptualization of a Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim identity. To quote Rafiuddin Ahmed, an analyst, to emphasize the not very deep differences between the two communities

The course of development suggests particularly one significant conclusion – that the objective differences between the two communities at the mass level were by themselves not strong enough to induce mutual conflict. For although the doctrinal differences between the two religious system are wide and varied, historically these differences were not of such importance as to act an effective barrier dividing all Muslims from all Hindus. In fact, any unprejudicial consideration of historical Islam in Bengal would suggest that basic doctrinal principles had very little to do with the political confrontation between Muslims and Hindus. It was only through skillful manipulation of certain religious symbols and constant ideological propaganda that the latent differences could be articulated and later used as portent instrument in the conflict between the two groups.[5]

Therefore it is not surprising that the Mullahs in ignorance, fanaticism and naiveté became a willing instrument in the hand of powerful interest groups, who strived to bargain with the colonial rulers by projecting themselves as the leaders of their ‘community’. To further their political interests this identity formation was necessary, and therefore sustained efforts were made to highlight this. To quote an analyst “the notion of an exclusive ‘Muslim’ identity gained ground and helped crystallize the boundaries of a self-conscious religious community, perhaps for the first time in their history”.[6]

The origin of the Bengali Muslims became relevant in the contested identity that competed with the homogenizing efforts of the Congress that argued India as one nation, to attract the British indulgence to resolve both self rule and the nationality issue. While the Muslims insisted in their Arab, Afghan and central Asian lineages to forcefully argue that they constitute a separate nation, the Hindus, laid emphasis on the fundamental unity of the Indian people[7]. With the British arbitrating the political fortune of both the communities the hitherto syncretic socio-cultural tradition was pushed into the background.

The sense of a nation with a political flavor in fact germinated when the first census took place in Bengal in 1881. This for the first time reflected that the Muslims were in a majority. The British regime and the concept of ‘self rule’ gave a new political meaning to the ‘numbers’. However, compared to their Hindu compatriots, they were economically and educationally backward. Their stake in the political system though was very high this restricted them to compete for any political responsibilities. The Bengali Muslims therefore took to western education to qualify for various government jobs thereby to elevate their socio-economic status. They increasingly participated in the political activities and organized themselves in order to work out this numerical majority in their favor. This was done to protect their genuine interests which they perceived would be undermined in a united India. As discussed earlier, though the Bengali Muslim identity had socially been formed, it had not envisioned itself politically within a territorial confine. The division of Bengal in 1905 gave territoriality to the Bengali Muslims’ sense of identity. One can argue that the Bengali Muslims were more of provincialists rather than nationalists or separatists[8] in their approach to the partition, and subsequent political developments reflected such an orientation.

Given the heightened sentiments, competition and perceived deprivation coupled with lack of economic privilege gave rise to a sense of exploitation of the Muslims by the Hindus in the Muslim minority provinces and Bengal. This sense of deprivation was further translated into political capital and its politicization heightened the tension between the two communities. These sentiments were factored into an inevitable fear of a political system dominated by the Hindu majority. Though the Muslims were in a majority in Bengal, they were a minority in united India. The choice was between the partition of India and a united India. Between these two, coupled with the unwillingness of the Bengali Hindus to form a united Bengal, the Bengali Muslims were left with the only option, to unite themselves as a Muslim ‘nation’. Though the feeling of the separate Bengali identity was present during the 1947 partition, efforts were made to cement the linguistic and the religious identities. The Bangiya Muslim Sahitya Samaj and later Muslim Sahitya Samaj played an important role in this. Later, another significant organization, the East Pakistan Renaissance Society, that came into being in the forties and which was a cultural front of the Pakistan movement, applied separatist measures to consolidate the Muslim identity.[9] The feeling was more in conformity with a monolithic Islamic brotherhood which was conceptualized and projected as a ‘nation’ in the Lahore resolution of 1940. The partition and formation of a Muslim nation was a transformation from empire to nation for the sub-continent Muslims given the context of long years of Muslim rule in india.

The Lahore resolution, moved by A.K.Fazlul Huq, one of the pioneers of the Bengal peasant movement was regarded as a tool to the ultimate attainment of self-sufficiency of the Bengali Muslims. To accomplish the goal of an independent Muslim state, the All India Muslim League (AIML) leadership carefully mobilized the Bengali Muslim leaders. It was after a year of moving the Lahore resolution that Huq resigned from the AIML and attempted to revive his old Krishak Proja Party. In fact he formed the government in Bengal with the support of the Congress. The Muslim League, after the Congress withdrawal of support, extended its support to cultivate this rural based political party in order to further its agenda of a separate nation. Though Jinnah had the support of Calcutta based Urdu speaking Muslim leaders like Nazimuddin, Isphani and Suhrawardy, he needed to make inroads into the rural areas to strengthen and build a unified movement.

The euphoria over the partition and creation of a state for the Muslims was short lived for the East Pakistanis. The political mobilization based on religion was built on the assumption that there could not be justice to the Muslims in a Hindu majority state. But at the same time religion based nationalism was not accepted very convincingly. The dilemma of nation and nationhood was reflected in the last minute efforts to form united Bengal.[10] Such a state would have assured the Bengali Muslims to enjoy greater political power in a state where they constitute a majority. The Congress that had earlier opposed the partition of Bengal in 1905 supported the division of Bengal in 1947, exactly on the ground on which it had opposed it earlier.[11] This opposition to a united Bengal along with the 1905 division has profound impact in the mind of the Bengali Muslims till date, that it is the Hindus who have acted against the Bengali Muslims interests. In fact such a narrative is cited in favor of Bangladeshi nationalism as a justification of a separate Bengali Muslim identity having a religious component to its construction.

From the very beginning the Bengali Muslims were conscious of their separate identity. The reason for joining the state of Pakistan for them was to attain economic salvation which was a dominant concern of the predominant peasant class. Numerically they were in a majority therefore they were not apprehensive of capturing political power in a democratic set up at the provincial level in a united India. Nor did they have the fear of Hindu domination in politics unlike the pre-partition Urdu speaking Muslim leadership. Yet they voted overwhelmingly for Pakistan for political power and economic wellbeing.[12]

The state of Pakistan was well envisioned territorially, but the structure of the state and its ideology remained vaguely defined in the pre-partition era. Interestingly, 1947 underlined the success of elites in defining a political identity based on religion that ultimately led to the formation of the state. However the failure of that identity to sustain the nation was entrenched in the structure of the state. The future course of identity politics was clear when Awami League (AL) dropped the term Muslim from the party nomenclature, the Awami Muslim League.

Pakistan State and the Bengali ‘Nation’: Failure of a Relationship

The graduation of the ‘Muslim community’ of Bengal to a ‘nation’, as has been mentioned earlier, went through socio-political metamorphosis as a concept. The formation of Pakistan as a nation state was portrayed as a monolithic foundation based on Islam where the political elite urged their religious compatriots to rise above the narrow provincialism.[13] The state founded on religious nationalism, at the same time, tried to define its citizenry identity in terms of Islam. It was presumed that the religious identity would supercede other primordial identities that would be able to hold together the disparate nation. However a state can always ideally motivate and mobilize the people based on a primordial identity. But to transform it into a political reality and sustain it through the onslaught of sub-national identities, it needs an egalitarian approach to both political aspirations and economic grievances of the various ethno-linguistic groups.

Both political autonomy and economic self sufficiency remained as unattainable goals after the creation of Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan though addressed the fear of Hindu domination in East Bengal however it did not assuage the Bengali Muslims’ aspirations for an equal society. The state of Pakistan introduced various measures to consolidate its hold over the Bengali Muslims. Two important factors contributed to the marginalization of East Pakistanis and weakening of the Pakistan state. First is the politics and second are the language/ cultural issues.

To deal with the issue of majority and the inherent political implications that it might have posed, the West Pakistan political elites introduced a ‘one unit’ formula. This formula provided parity between East Pakistan having a majority of population with that of the West wing. The political and economic balance however heavily favored West Pakistan.[14] The 1954 political controversy which resulted in the sacking of the elected government in East Pakistan laid the foundation stone of a process that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh. The political events that unfolded in the succeeding years and the economic disparity, as mentioned earlier, thus deepened the antipathy. The Bengali nation and territorial homeland had already existed and provided a driving force to convert this antipathy into a movement, and was influenced by three factors: economic well being, national security and political autonomy.[15]

The state of Pakistan offered them nothing more than nationalism based on religion, where the Bengalis were given latent indication that their culture and language do not comply with their religious belief. The predicament surfaced when the state decided to make Urdu, a language spoken by a minority migrant community belonging to the part that forms India, as the national language. The West Pakistan political elite coaxed the Bengalis to be ‘Muslims’ with those cultural diacritics, that they perceived, were in conformity with the religion. For example: the Bengalis were clearly opposed to the Islamic nomenclature of Pakistan, separate electorate and Urdu as the national language.[16] As it was perceived then, all these three issues were the pillars of the Muslim nationhood. Though eventually Bengali became one of the national languages and a joint electorate system was introduced, the problem that eventually had a bearing on the conception of a Bengali nation was the effort of the Pakistani state to persianise and urduiase Bengali language[17]. The Central Advisory Committee for Education in East Pakistan recommended Arabic script for Bengali.[18] The government also established adult education centre and allocated substantial funds to impart education in Bengali language through Arabic script.[19] The Islamic cultural conferences held in Dhaka in 1952 and 1956 and the East Pakistan literary conference held in Chittagong in 1958 repeatedly exhorted that it was the duty of writers in East Pakistan to adhere to Islamic culture and principles, emphasize the Muslim tradition, strengthen the ideology of Pakistan, and always be on guard against and frustrate the designs of those who aim to unite the two Bengals.[20] This clearly underlined the insecurity of the Urdu speaking elite and acknowledgement of the fact that language has the strength to surpass the religious barrier. The commitment of the Bengalis to the Pakistan nation was always a matter of doubt to the West Pakistanis. Therefore simultaneously effort was made to encourage Bengali Muslim writers to write in Chalit bhasa[21] as an effort to get rid of the influence of sanskritised words in Bengali literature. By April 1951, the government had spent around Rs 60,000 on adult education centre to examine whether literacy could be achieved quickly with the introduction of an Arabic script.[22]

Apart from degrading the linguistic heritage the cultural celebrations were looked down upon with disdain by those who considered them as influences of the Hindu culture. Rabindra sangeet which is considered as an eternal source of inspiration to many Bengalis in East Pakistan was banned and efforts were made to Islamise cultural symbols. However the state efforts had limited influence due to the protest of the Bengali elites. Most of them perceived this not only as a cultural onslaught on their heritage but an effort to marginalize the Bengalis in the new state.[23] The language movement has got its own heroes in the form of language martyrs who were killed on 21st February 1951 by the Pakistan Army, while demanding the recognition of Bengali as one of the national languages. The Bengali nation was already born on this day nearly about four and half years after the birth of the state of Pakistan. It was waiting for the political impetus that will eventually turn the nation into a nation-state. Like any nation state, having its own myth, history and culture which with the passage of time germinates and consolidates itself as an idea, the Bengali nation also went through political conception, evolution and culminated as a separate nation state.[24]

To protect what the state perceived as its inherent ideological foundation, it played up the “fear of Indian threat, communist incursions and Hindu phobia”[25] thereby trying to consolidate an Islamic identity that necessarily impinged upon the secular demands of the East Pakistanis. The genuine demands were included under the rubric of state security and were given a separatist and conspiratorial color by the state, a state that did not represent the majority and was a political construction to serve insecurities of the Urdu speaking elites initially and later the Punjabis. The most crucial issue that was considered as the departure point for the Bengalis was the 1970 election where the Awami League, an East Pakistan based political party, secured majority. However transfer of power did not take place owing to the extreme reluctance of the West Pakistan military, bureaucratic and political elites to hand over power to the Bengalis. The 25th March 1971 crackdown to protect the Pakistani state from disintegration ultimately led to its unraveling.

Reassertion of Bengali Identity: Creation of Bangladesh

Creation of Bangladesh questioned the rationale of a nation formation on the basis of religious identity. The formation of nation-state, its historical and cultural heritages constitute inspiring factors in the national identity construction. The national identity formation – a Bengali identity – which is linguistic laid the political foundation of the nation-state. What inspired the masses was not only the issue of economic exploitation and political marginalization but the slogan that ‘we are Bengalis’. This battle cry delineated a clear line between the perpetrators of crime and its victim and was pitted between ‘us’ vs ‘them’. The liberation war, its foundational inspirations, the context of Bengali aspirations made the state to incorporate secularism as one of its state principles. The constitution of Bangladesh in this context defined nationalism as “The unity and solidarity of the Bengalee nation, which, deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bengalee nationalism”.

It is important to mention here that secularism as a foundational principle was incorporated keeping in mind how the Pakistan state exploited the Bengali Muslims, citing the ‘one religion-one nation’ concept. Article 12 elaborated on how the state would realize secularism.[26] Another important article that was a prerequisite for the functioning of secularism was article 38 that banned “any communal or other association or union which in the name of or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues, a political purpose”.

The term secularism got politicized due to various circumstantial compulsions. Foreign policy postures of the new state, due to the domestic political dynamics, unnecessarily dragged external countries to the domain of ideological rivalries between various groups in the Bangladesh state.[27] Mujib detractors used this as a political tool to discredit him and portray his regime as a ‘client’ of India. And the adoption of secularism was considered as a compromise in spite of the fact that it was a reaction to a religion based state. Even today politically this is propagated and socially it is believed. The reference that was pertinent and served the political purpose then was the 1947 partition which is still relevant in Bangladesh’s national identity construction. Even immediately after the liberation when the sentiments were against the political use of religion Mujib himself tried to defend the inclusion of secularism. To quote him, “Secularism does not mean absence of religion. You are a Mussalman, you perform your religious rites. There is no irreligiousness on the soil of Bangladesh but there is secularism. This sentence has a meaning and that meaning is that none would be allowed to exploit the people in the name of religion, or create such fascist organizations as the Al-Badr, razakars etc. No communal politics will be allowed in the country”.[28] Secularism had another component to its content i.e. linguistic nationalism which discarded a religious identity as the basis of nationalism. Even though Mujib established a secular state he could not separate religion from the state. His brand of secularism was termed as a ‘multi-theocracy’ by a scholar,[29] where the state instead of being neutral strived to show that it believed in all the religions. This did not prevent his detractors from criticizing him. He increasingly used religious greetings in order to establish his Islamic credentials also to assure his followers and at the same time send a message to his detractors. He established the Islamic Foundation to deal with the apprehensions created by his critics.

Thus a question that crosses ones mind is whether Bangladesh was socially or politically prepared for the inclusion of secularism in 1971? One can forcefully argue that the incorporation of secularism politicized the religion in Bangladesh where the definition of secularism was not very clear to the masses, thereby subjecting them to various propaganda regarding its application and meaning. The secular identity was propagated as synonymous with being non-religious which is repugnant to the Muslim majority.[30] It also denied any primacy to Islam. This was narrowly interpreted that the Muslims will be equal to other minor religious communities rather than having any preponderant positions in terms of their standing in the new state. The old fear of exploitation by the Hindus resurfaced in the carefully crafted notion of cultural distinctiveness between the two parts of Bengal. The growth of anti-Indianism provided a fertile ground for religious nationalism.[31] The Muslims of Bengal had fought for a Muslim East Pakistan and not a secular state, which was the dominant sentiment among them. And this sentiment was molded by the rightist elements. It is important to mention here that there was no popular movement against secularism. Its incorporation had the liberation war as its background. In fact even after Mujib’s assassination, his successor Khondokar Mushtaq Ahmed did not make any attempts to remove secularism from the constitution.

Historically, the Bengali language is considered as a dominant source of strength of Bangladesh’s nationalism.[32] Therefore in a linguistically defined predominantly Muslim country it was a matter of time for the religious sentiments to be used politically for the reasons of political expediency especially when the governments were military.[33] With the change of political equation with India, it was portrayed as a major challenge to the regime. A societal insecurity regarding religion was carefully crafted and pursued and was also exploited. An atmosphere was created to revive the religious identity of the Bangladeshis given the new political dynamics. Under the prevailing circumstances the Indian state embodied the old evil exploitative Hindus. To sum the sentiment in nutshell, those forces opposed to Mujib believed, for a variety of reasons, that Bangladesh after getting independence from Pakistan which treated it as a colony is again moving in a similar pattern of client-patron relationship with India. Therefore the need for the preservation of Muslim identity resurfaced with the old equations being resuscitated. Therefore there was a need, to quote Rupert Emerson in this context, for the nation “to takeover the state as the political instrument through which it can protect and assert itself”.[34] It is important to mention here that the politics of aid and recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign country by Saudi Arabia added its own dynamic. Saudi Arabia’s recognition was in fact a great moral boost to Bangladesh with a dominant Muslim population.[35] It acted as a reestablishment of faith on the Bengali Muslims which was symbolically defining. Therefore the constitution was amended by General Ziaur Rahman and article 25(2) was incorporated that gave primacy to the relations with the Muslim countries.

Incorporation of “Bismillaur Rehmanur Rahim” as a result of amendment[36] by the military regime did impinge on the societal relationship between the two communities, but in the political sphere its reverberation was felt predominantly which had long term politico-social implications. To accommodate the religious denomination in the constitution, subsequently various articles of the 1972 constitution were deleted[37]. With the legitimacy to the religious parties a new phase of identity politics emerged. Zia’s regime did away with any semblance of secularism and the AL was marginalized and remained a mute spectator. Moreover, the AL had not got over the shock of elimination of all its front ranking leaders. Gen Zia civilianized his rule with the help of rightist elements and some of them were even drawn from the Awami league. The foundation of a majoritarian state that was laid down during Mujib’s period took its charted course.[38]

To take the process forwards, General Ershad declared Islam as the state religion.[39] Article 2A reads “Islam is the state religion. All other religions can be practiced freely in peace and harmony”.[40] The state increasingly relied on religion in terms of identity and political discourse. The minorities, both religious and ethnic, increasingly felt that they are at the mercy of the majoritarian state for their rights. With the intrusion of religion in politics, Islam became a part of the societal discourse. The state that had agitated against the use of religion and had fought for a composite culture got sucked into the debate on religious vs secularism and the controversies over what constitutes fundamentals of Bangladesh’s nationhood.

The state though has not taken any steps to introduce measures like Sharia which will make it a real Islamic state, the reverberations of such intrusion is strongly felt in the social life. The symbolic nature of Bangladesh being a state with Islam as state religion is likely to change with the rise of religious parties.[41] Once having intruded the contour and extent of the political use of religion will depend on many factors both external and internal that will determine the time frame of Islamisation. Internally it would depend on the government’s capability to fight growing extremism, reestablishing the faith of minorities on the state and providing political space for dissent. At the same time the initiative of civil society groups to indulge the government in establishing an equal society would contribute extensively to internally contain the political use of religion. However certain measures taken by the present government headed by the BNP, does not generate much assurance about the future state of affairs.[42]

The elite articulation of Bangladesh being a ‘moderate Muslim country’ is ambiguous both in its meaning and implications. The problem in such a conception is who would define what constitutes ‘moderate’ as an expression. The function of the judiciary does not also impel confidence among the secularists and the minorities. Islam as the state religion inherently gives primacy to the Muslims. This creates a kind of superior attitude and empowers even a common man psychologically against the members of other communities.[43] It officially makes the state committed to one particular community. Problem with this kind of political construction of a national identity in an ideologically driven society is that it creates divisions in the polity. This torments and taunts the people who are on the other side of this ideological divide and often places them as outsiders. The polarised Bangladesh politics reflects these issues broadly.

Future of Identity Politics

Language versus religion dominates the ideological domain of Bangladesh politics. The domestic politics is completely divided on these counts. The context of ideological rivalry and the question of national identity often constitute the core of this debate. What is debatable is whether religion that was the basis of 1947 nationalism, or language that was the basis of 1971 nationalism, constitutes the relevant basis of state formation. Though the partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion has a different connotation for the Bengali Muslims, this identity still defines the sentiment of a section of the people in the Bangladesh period. The Islamic parties and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are vying for this definition of national identity. Though BNP is conscious of the cultural moorings of the liberation movement, its’ emphasis has been the religious identity in addition to the linguistic identity. Though BNP’s founder Gen Ziaur Rehman “declared” independence[44] the political circumstances however made the BNP in articulating rightist ideology for its political survival. Constitutional changes brought by this party in 1977 had its political compulsions and ideological constraints given the politics of the time. But it still adheres to a conception of a state with visible religious diacritics. Competing for the political space with the BNP are religious right-wing parties like the Jamaat Islami, IOJ and the Jatiyo party (Ershad), that are willing to go beyond the constitutional provision of Islam as the State religion. All these parties have a rather patronizing attitude to those citizens who do not belong to their definition of the nation state. Due to this the cultural symbols have already come under attack.[45]

The Awami League on the other hand has projected itself in the line of a secular ideology with language as an important pillar of its ideological mooring. However given the constraint in pursuing secularism in Bangladesh politics, the AL has diluted its position by using religion in a subtle manner. The problem is that in a Muslim majority state the AL can hardly keep religious symbolism out of its political articulation. At the same time it does not want to display overt religious symbols to assuage both the minorities as well as secular intellectuals who also played an important role during the liberation and constitutes important segment of its vote bank. AL insistence and dominant articulation has been to project itself as a party that played the lead role in the liberation of the country on the basis of secularism. It does not want to concede the glory of the liberation struggle to other parties, some of whose members are also freedom fighters. AL has adopted a method of political cornering that includes branding members of other political parties’ as collaborators of the Pakistan regime. This has resulted in other parties reacting to AL’s ideological challenge. To quote an analyst “contentious politics is reflected and reinforced in cultural and intellectual activities. … the clash of heroes and doctrines reverberate through the entire polity”.[46]

The left parties are committed to secularism but they do not have the electoral arithmetic to favour them. To all these parties, except for the religious parties, 1971 is the reference point for Bangladesh’s national identity construction whether it is being only a ‘Bengali nation’ or being a ‘Bangladeshi nation’.

The social space for the linguistic nationalists that believe in secularism is getting shrunk in the growing ideological rivalry as all the parties compete with each other to use religion as a tool of legitimacy and political discourse. Both the AL and BNP have made this as a ground of their rivalry. Inevitably this brings forth the underlying motivation of the state formation. The 1947 formation of the Pakistan state had a clear basis that was religion. The contour of the state and the formation of the nation became problematic later. In the present context of Bangladesh both 1947 and 1971 remains relevant depending on which side of the ideological divide one locates themselves.

Between this debates on secularism vs religion the battle is raging. The creation of a tolerant democratic environment can ensue a healthy debate which will give space to the liberals and seculars to ventilate their ideas, to the minorities to live without fear and recognize diversity. If not secularism, a liberal environment will ensure free participation and security to its citizens. To achieve this, civil society, political actors and the state need to work in tandem. A sense of hope amidst despair seems to characterize the elites in Bangladesh. Though they seem complacent at the moment, the 21st February celebration and the 1971 liberation war reminds them that they can still change the situation. Tariq Ali,[47] speaking on the occasion of the first screening of Muktir gaan, said, “… I marvel at the spirit we were able to infuse. I feel proud finally. And to you I wish to say do not lose heart at the rise of anti-71 forces eating away at the roots of our secular-democratic dream of golden Bengal. We have won that war. We shall win this one”.[48]

* The author would like to thank the Department of International Relations, Dhaka University for providing affiliation for one year as a visiting Asia Fellow. I would also like to thank Prof Anisuzzaman, Prof Nazrul Islam, Dr. Kajal Banerjee in particular for going through the draft and giving their comments. Apart from them I would like to thank Prof Halim, Ameena, Meghna and Ehsan and some of my dear friends in Dhaka University for their support, encouragement and company they gave me during my stay in Bangladesh. Among my Indian friends I would like to thank Mr. Sujit Dutta for his inputs on this subject.

** Asia Fellow, Cohort-V, Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India

[1] For example: Ray Mangala, written in 1686 praises both Dakshin Ray and a Muslim pioneer Badi Ghazi Khan. The literatures that are prominent were Ananta Badu Chandidas’s Srikrisna Kirtana, Ramayan by Kritivasa and Srikrisna Vijaya by Maladhara Vasu. The Pachali poems on local Gods and Goddess appeared towards the end of 15th century which drew from the cultural climate and physical geography of Bengal. For details see M.R Tarafdar, Husain Shahi Bengal, 1494-1538 AD: A Socio-Political Study (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1965), pp.11-12. Nabi Vamsi by Sultan Saiyid depicted Krishna as one of the prophets. For details see France Bhattacharya, “Hari the Prophet-An Islamic View of a Hindu God in Saiyid Sultan’s Nabi Vamsa”, in Perween Hasan and Mufakharul Islam, “Essays in Memory of Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar” (Dhaka: Centre for Advanced Research in the Humanities, 1999), pp.192-208. Other writers were Shaikh Faidullah, Daulat Qadi and Alaul whose writings based on various common traditions and practices of both the communities flourished in the 16th and 17th century. Nur Tattwa is another literature that talked of the syncretic tradition of Bengal. Apart from the literature both the Hindus and Muslims revered goddesses Bon bibi, Sitala etc. For elaboration of syncretic tradition refer Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, (Delhi: Oxford university Press, 1997), pp.268-303. Also refer to Asim Roy, The Islamic syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Dhaka: Academic Publishers, 1983).

[2] 17th century poems like the Nasiyat Nama of Shaikh Paran, Kifayit-ul-Musalin of Shaiakh Muttalib and Shariat Nama of Nasrullah Khan which aimed at Islamisation. (as cited in Enamul Haq, “Muslim Vangala Sahitya, pp. 164-66 and 177-78) As contrasted with the Muslim poems of 15th and 16th centuries which are replete with Yogic-Tantric themes and ideas, these works have Islamic content Both the main text and footnote is quoted from M.R Tarafdar, Husain Shahi Bengal, 1494-1538 AD: A Socio-Political Study (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Pakistan, 1965), p. 14.

[3] The Wahabi, Farazi and Tarika-e-Mohammad movements gave a distinct identity to the Bengal Muslims. These conservative schools of thoughts stressed ‘purist Islam’ and urged the Muslims to give up Sufi practices. At the same time reform movements in the Hindu society also created divergence.

[4] Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi: Oxford University press, 1988), second edn, p.107

[5] Ibid, p. 183.

[6] Rafiuddin Ahmed, “The Emergence of the Bengal Muslims” in Rafiuddin Ahmed (ed.), Understanding the Bengal Muslims: Interpretive Essays (Dhaka: UPL, 2001), p.18

[7] According to Richard Eaton, though it is difficult to ascribe the bulk of the Muslim population of East Bengal to immigration there were many factors that contributed to the presence of majority Muslims in this region. According to him mutual accommodation of two theories of immigration and egalitarian nature of Islam bridged the gap between the Ashrafs and the locals that stressed the unity of all the Muslims residing within their borders. See Eaton, n.1, pp.127-28. For various theories of Islamisation see pp. 113-134

[8] These terms have contextual relevance. Provincialist is used in terms of a Bengali identity, nationalist is used to refer to Islam as an identity and separatist is used to denote their ambitions in terms of political future. However all these references underwent political transformation under various compelling circumstances.

[9] Anisuzzaman, commenting on a paper presented by Ghulam Murshid, “Oscillating Muslim identity: Cases of Abdul Mansur Ahmed and Abdul Haq” in Rafiuddin Ahmed (ed.), “Islam in Bangladesh: Society, Culture and Politics”, (Dhaka: Bangladesh Itihas Samity, 1983), p. 149-150

[10] In the press conference held on 27 April 1947, Suhrawardy in collaboration with Abul Hashim, a socialist General Secretary of BPML announced that he will work for a sovereign united Bengal. For details see Harun-or-Rashid, Inside Bengal Politics, 1936-47: Unpublished Correspondence of Partition Leaders, (Dhaka: UPL, 2003), pp.28-29. Abul Hashim and Sarat Chandra Bose had talked of a 50-50 percent sharing of power by the Hindus. Hashim blames it to the haste to the British which did not give much time for the Bengalis to negotiate. See Abul Hashim, In Retrospection (Dhaka: Cooperative Book store, 1974), pp.152-64. He felt that the Lahore resolution provided independence of Bengal and therefore he supported it and he did not believe in the two Nation theory. See Hashim, pp.35-36

[11] For the details of politics involving this division see Harun or Rashid, The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh: Bengal Muslim League and Muslim politics 1906-1947 (Dhaka: UPL, 2003), pp.257-328.

[12] The state of Pakistan meant different to the Muslims of different geographical region. To the Muslims who were in a minority in a Hindu majority province it was political and economic emancipation from a Hindu dominated rule, For the Bengalis it meant freedom from the clutches of Hindu Zamindars. To Punjabis, Sindhis and Pathans it was perpetuation of their hold on land and state power against a possible encroachment from the Hindu Business class staying in this area.

[13] Jinnah’s statement in Dhaka in which he considered the demand for Bengali as one of the national language is enemy initiated, and the Bengalis who were making such a demand were referred to as fifth columnists. See “National Consolidation” delivered on March 21and “Farewell Message to East Pakistan” of 28th March 1948 in Quaid-i-Azam Mahomed Ali Jinnah Speeches as Governor General 1947-48 (Karachi: Pakistan Publication, n.d) and Liaquat Ali Khan’s statement on the issue in which he said it is the Urdu speaking Muslims who created Pakistan therefore Urdu will be the national language underlines the point of monolithic state.

[14] Disparities were noticed in GDP growth rate, investment, industrialization and also standard of living. For data see Rehman Sobhan, Bangladesh: The Problem of Governance (Dhaka: UPL, 1993), pp. 82-108

[15] It was clear that the economic disparity was appalling. The disparity was reflected in transport and communication, the urban areas and the living standard of the two wings. Second the 1965 war with India exposed the vulnerability of the Eastern wing. The rationality of defence spending to the Bengalis was obvious from the beginning. The logic that was propagated by the West Pakistan elite was that the defence of East Pakistan lies in the West Pakistan was debunked. The Bengalis realized at the cost of their economic development West Pakistan is being protected. Third, even after the Awami League, a East Pakistan based political party, won the power in the election conducted by the military regime, they are not handed over the power. All these factors drove the point that East Pakistan has virtually become the colony of the West.

[16] For the opposition to the Islamic nomenclature see the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan Debates, Vol. 1, no. 51, January 28, 1956, p.2201. Prominent among the Muslim members who opposed this are H.S.Suhrawardy and Mujibur Rahman. On separate electorate issue see Pakistan, Constituent Assembly Debates, February 1, 1956, pp. 2268-69

[17] Golam Morshed, “Cultural identity of Former East Pakistan and Conflicting State Policies”, Journal of the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Vol. 3, no.69, p. 82.

[18] Defending this recommendation Education Minister replied in the floor of the CAP, “The board is of the opinion that in the interest of national unity and solidarity and the rapid advancement of general education in Pakistan, it is necessary to have all the regional languages of Pakistan written in the same script; the Arabic script was most useful for this purpose…” This statement was given in reply to a question posed by Abul Basher Mahmud Hossain who asked the question on behalf of Shahadul Haq as cited in Rangalal Sen, “Political Elites in Bangladesh” (Dhaka, UPL, 1986), p. 105.

[19] A sixteen member committee was formed on 9th March 1949 under the chairmanship of Maulana Akram Khan. This committee submitted its report on 7 December 1950. It rejected the introduction of Arabic script in Bengali.

[20] Anisuzzaman, Identity, Religion and Recent History: Four Lectures on Bangladesh Society (Calcutta: Naya Udyog and MAKAIAS, 1995), p. 22.

[21] Chalit bhasa was more of a local language spoken in the Muslim dominated East Bengal. Contrary to this Sadhu Bhasa was more of sanskritised language that is used by the Bengali Hindus. This debate was more relevant with regard to the quality of language in which prose was composed. In this context the perceived dichotomy between the two communities witnessed the flourishing of punthi literature as a challenge to sadhu bhasa.

[22] Tazeen Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengali Muslim Discourses 1871-1977, (Dhaka: UPL, 1996), p. 313

[23] Though the language issue was broadly seen as an attack on the East Pakistan linguistic identity and cultural heritage, the middle class perceived it in economic terms. They felt that the introduction of Urdu as a national language would cripple their economic aspiration in terms of getting jobs in Pakistan.

[24] The Bangladesh political leaders and the leaders who played important role during the 1947 partition in their writings suggested that the 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh was tantamount to an implementation of the 1940 Lahore resolution that envisaged ‘independent states’. At the same time it is interesting to note that in the ML Legislators convention held in Delhi on 9th April, 1946 Suhrawardy who on Jinnah’s insistence moved a resolution in favour of “a sovereign independent state of Pakistan instead of a more than one Muslim majority independent states” MAH Ispahani, Qauid-e-Azam Jinnah as I know him, 1966, pp.156-160. Also see Abul Mansoor Ahmed, “Bangladesher Culture”, (Dhaka: Ahmed Publishing House, 2004)

[25] Murshid, n. 22, p. 285.

[26] The approach as laid down in the constitution was that the state would strive by eliminating communalism in all its forms; not granting political status in favour of any religion, eliminating abuse of religion for political purposes; removing any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.

[27] The contest was between religious nationalism and secularism. In this rivalry India’s role in the liberation war and its close ties with Awami League made some of Mujib’s detractor to spread the rumour that this policy was dictated by India. The anti-liberation forces were active and to them disintegration of Pakistan, an Islamic state and Bangladesh’s emergence as a secular country was a political anathema. Apart from this Saudi Arabia’s delayed recognition made the matter worse. However it is important to mention here even with the violent end of Mujib, his detractor and successor Khondokar Mushtaq Ahmed did not delete this provision from the constitution. According to Dr Kamal Hossain, who was one of the major architects of the Bangladesh’s 1972 constitution, there was no outside pressure on the inclusion of secularism. The Constituent Assembly deliberated on this issue and there was a consensus on the inclusion of secularism given the context of state formation. Moreover, after the adoption of constitution when the AL went for election in 1973, it won the election with a landslide victory.

[28] “Speeches of Sheikh Mujib” Translation in English, published by External Publicity Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972, pp.16-17.

[29] Talukdar Maniruzzaman, “Bangladesh Politics: Secular and Islamic Trends”, in Ahmed ed., n.9, p. 187.

[30] In the context of close relations with Indo-Soviet bloc it got a different meaning something akin to a communist society and considered as a conspiracy.

[31] Badruddin Umar, “Anti-Indianism and Communalism, Sapatahik Swadhikar, 17 September 1972, as cited in Badruddin Umar, Juddhotoro Bangladesh (Post-liberation Bangladesh) (Dhaka: Muktadhara, 1975), pp. 15-16 (translated by the author.)

[32] Iftekharuzzaman and Mahbubur Rahman, “Nation Building in Bangladesh: Perceptions, Problems and Approach” in M Abdul Hafiz and Rob Khan (ed.), Nation building in Bangladesh: Retrospect and Prospect, (Dhaka: BIISS, 1986), p.15

[33] For detail analyses of various factors that contributed to Bangladeshi nationalism see T. Maniruzzaman, Group Interests and Political Changes: Studies of Pakistan and Bangladesh, (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1982), pp.13-17.

[34] Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation: The Rise of Self Assertion of Asian and African peoples, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p. 96.

[35] Pakistan had always treated Bengali Muslims as inferior race and not ‘true Muslims’. It also considered Bengali as an unIslamic language.

[36] This was incorporated through an ordinance (proclamation order no. 1) when Zia came to power and later was made part of the constitution through the 5th amendment. The passage of these ordinances in the Jatiyo Sangsad (National Assembly) in the form of 5th amendment was preconditioned on the lifting of martial law. As a result the AL members staged a walk out from the parliament.

[37] Article 12, Article 38 dealing with secularism and religion politics, respectably were deleted. The words ‘historic struggle for national liberation’ was substituted with ‘war of independence’.

[38] Towards the end of his regime Mujib used more Islamic symbolism in his speeches and public pronouncements. He established Islamic foundation, strengthened Madrassa system of education and increased funding to madrassas.

[39] According to Gen. Ershad, he was under compelling circumstances to declare Islam as state religion. From among various factors he cited, the Pakistani propaganda which had greater influence among the Muslim countries was that Bangladeshis are not real Muslim and the pressure from the OIC countries that forced him to take this decision. Apart from this he wanted to make the distinction between Epar Bangla Opar Bangla (This side Bengal and that side Bengal). The Bengali Hindu dominated state of West Bengal is a major source of cultural insecurity for Bangladesh which gets reflected on the issue of national identity. Interview with Gen Ershad, former President of Bangladesh, on 28th December 2004, Dhaka.

[40] See, Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, (Dhaka: Government of Bangladesh, 2000), p. 2.

[41] Jamaat Islami Bangladesh, “Nirbachani Istehar” (Election Manifesto, Dhaka), p. 4 and 7.

[42] The frequent attack on Ahmediyas is a case in point. In some instances the police remained mute spectators. Parties like Awami League who talks of secularism have not issued any statement condemning these attacks. The BNP and the alliance government banned the literature of Ahmediyas. The Islamic parties or their front organisations want them to be declared as non Muslims. The left parties are the only ones who have taken a firm stand on the issue. Other than them the civil society has been extremely strong in condemning the attack. In fact activists of the Ghattak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to Abolish Murderers and their Agents) have marched to the Ahmediya mosques on Fridays to prevent attacks. Even the Hindus have been attacked in certain cases but most of these are related to the vested property Act.

[43] Haridhan Goswami and Zobaida Nasreen, Discourse on Minority representation: The Case of Hindu religious Minority in Bangladesh”, Himalayan and Central Asian Studies, Vol. 7, no. 3-4, July-December 03, pp. 85-100.

[44] This issue is a controversial subject. The AL insists that before Gen Zia’s declaration there was a declaration of independence which only few people heard since the radio station did not have a larger coverage area. Gen Zia only declared independence after AL party workers had done it. The issue is highly contested. It is on record that Gen Zia declared independence in the name of Mujib. However BNP’s stand is that the General declared independence on his own.

[45] For example, there was a bomb blast on the occasion of Pohela Boisakh, a cultural festival organised to welcome the Bangla new year in Dhaka in 2003. This year for the first time Quran was recited in Shaheed Minar on the occasion of observance of language martyrs day. This recital had a symbolical value. Though the voices of secularism are extremely strong and organized in Dhaka but do not have much presence in the countryside.

[46] S. Aminul islam, “Political Parties and the Future of Democracy” in AM Chowdhury and Fakrul Alam (eds.) Bangladesh on the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century, (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2002), p.68

[47] A freedom fighter who by singing songs had tried to arouse patriotic feelings in the refugee and the Mukti Bahini camps.

[48] Niaz Zaman, “Poetry and Politics in Bangladesh” in Perween Hasan and Mufakharul Islam (eds.), Essays in Memory of Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar (Dhaka: Centre for Advanced Research in the Humanities, 1999), p. 423

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