Thoughts about nationalism, South Asian writing and narrative form
Note: This is a revised version of a speech given in August 2020 at a webinar organised by the Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata.
Special thanks to the organisers of this virtual conference, especially because they have designated me “Guest of Honour”. This is the first time in my seventy odd years that I have been accorded such an exalted status. I was hoping this would spare me the trouble of presenting a paper, but that was not to be. Gently but firmly, the organisers insisted that I say something related to the conference theme.
I do not have a thesis as such. Professor Prathama Banerjee’s keynote address is an up-to-the-minute discourse about the problems facing us today. Her paper is titled “A Crisis of the Narrative Form? Contemporary Nationalism and the Narrative Form”. She has argued with vigour and scholarly acumen that narrative literary forms are inadequate for dealing with the problems arising out of nationalism today. My talk, though only twenty minutes long, is a broader and rather rambling take on a subject indicated in my title—nationality and other difficulties.
But I’ve read the conference flyer, and inwardly groaned when I took in the title: “The Agonies of Nationhood.” You see, the title seems to limit us to the discontent and burdens associated with the nation. And the conference subtitle lays open the possibility of another kind of discontent: “Cultural Reflections from the Indian Subcontinent.”
I was reminded that naming can be a contentious issue. After Partition, E M Forster bemoaned the appropriation of the name India by the Republic of India. Till then India had meant the subcontinent as a whole, and Forster couldn't reconcile himself to this attenuation of meaning. I can imagine someone somewhere asking ironically how India can appropriate the entire subcontinent. This dire possibility explains why we have the increasing use of the label “South Asia”. A parallel case is that of the word Hindustan—a region that Muhammad Iqbal claimed to be his homeland, and that he celebrated in a famous song. After Partition, Hindustan acquired an antagonistic opposite in Pakistan.
When we belonged to East Pakistan, we were taught that our country was part of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Hyphenation in the name of any entity seems to be the punctuation mark that indicates an ontological unease. It's all a question of usage of course. If we all accept that the Indian subcontinent or Hindustan is the entire subcontinent there would be no carping over nomenclature. Problems arise only if one of the constituent countries lays its exclusive claim to the name. We can even create complications unawares.
I will illustrate this with reference to a writer, and a book of his that I greatly admire. Mr Shashi Tharoor made history with his Oxford Union speech, arguing for the motion that Britain owes reparations to her former colonies. It put paid to all attempts to justify the empire on the premise of its benevolence. Mr Tharoor did not ask for reparations commensurate with the losses the subcontinent had suffered because of colonial rapacity, but only a token of one pound per annum for 200 years by way of atonement.
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In the book published as a follow up, An Era of Darkness, he makes it clear that when he spoke for India, it was colonial India, which today lies split into three states. Bangladesh and Pakistan, if they wish, can adopt the case he makes in the book. Logical enough. But there are limits to Mr Tharoor’s inclusivity. In course of presenting the tangled history of the Kohinoor diamond’s peregrinations, ending in the crown of the Queen Mother, and the demand often raised for its return to its rightful location, Mr Tharoor notes that “Indians consider their claim self-evident,” whereas the other claimants, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are brushed aside. He dismisses Pakistan's claim because the argument that the last British owner, the Sikh kingdom, had its capital in Lahore is flimsy because no Sikhs live there anymore. As an avowed nationalist, Mr Tharoor would like to see “items of cultural significance in India returned” as an expression of regret for the depredations of imperialism.
One can't help feeling that as an Indian nationalist, he would like to regard the Republic of India, as the sole successor state to the British Raj.
I have a niggling suspicion that Mr Tharoor, when he suggested a token annual reparation of one pound, envisaged it being paid to the treasury of the Republic of India. Considering population ratios, India can legitimately claim 70 p and splitting the rest into two halves, Bangladesh can surely claim 15 p. I'm being facetious, of course.
But I do think Mr Tharoor’s nationalism stands in the way of an inclusive vision of Indian civilisation.
This becomes clear in Chapter Two where he tries to refute the British claim that they created “the political unity of India – that the very idea of India as one entity (now three but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets is the unchallengeable contribution of British imperial rule.”
Mr Tharoor is at pains to prove that Indians have always had a strong centripetal force working amidst them, leading to the creation of large empires; and that even without British imperialism, India would have evolved into a modern nation state. But why this obsession with the nation state?
One nation state or three or more, the subcontinent would still retain its civilisational identity. Mr Tharoor acknowledges the civilisational unity, but doesn't seem to appreciate that it can come under threat from the modern nationalism associated with the Westphalian nation state.
As a result, what we find in the culture of the Indian subcontinent today is a lamentable partitioning of the mind. In literary studies, for example, we do not have a unified critical framework for the entire subcontinent; we talk of Indian literature, Pakistani literature, Bangla literature; then again, in West Bengal discussion of Bangla literature focuses essentially on West Bengali writing.
It's relevant to refer in this context to the Q&A at the session on the book, An Era of Darkness, at the “Kolkata Literary Meet.” (To watch, just google “Dr Shashi Tharoor talks empire at Kalam 2017”.) “I would like you to tell us,” a young woman in the audience asked, “whether Indians are actually losing their right to complain about their colonial history now that they are pursuing their colonial ambitions all over South Asia?” It took Mr Tharoor by surprise. As you know, one experiencing surprise of this nature often tries to cover it up with laughter. “Ha ha,” he guffawed. “Are we?” he added, and asked for examples.
She mentioned three countries, where she claimed India was trying to play Big Brother.
“I think you are being a little unfair, my dear”, came the reply.
I'm surprised there was no radical feminist in the audience to protest the patronizing “my dear” so often used on young women by men in positions of authority, and I cannot also help thinking that the tone he adopted is very much what an Englishman might have in responding to his anti-colonial arguments — “Oh dear, oh dear… aren’t you being a little unfair on us?”
Mr Tharoor continued, “The fact is that all big countries have this problem.” He drew an analogy with the United States and its small neighbours, and quoted “the wonderful Mexican statesman, Porfirio Diaz,” who memorably said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States.” Thus, Mr Tharoor unwittingly deconstructed himself, for Porfirio Diaz had made his celebrated comment in the context of his struggle against American interference on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary.
I mention all this as an observer, an apolitical Bangladeshi citizen, to underscore the problems that may arise in relations between countries when they are motivated by nationalism, hegemonic ambitions, or economic and political rivalry. We see this on the global scene today between big countries like China and the USA, and of course between big countries and small countries.
The National question can of course loom large in the consciousness of any people, irrespective of size, under certain historical circumstances, as it did in my country in 1971. Politics, economics, culture came together to pose an existential choice to the 70 million people of what used to be East Pakistan. Born in 1950, even as a very small boy I felt the tension between being a Pakistani, and a Bengali.
Playing with children of my age, we would chant blood-curdling slogans demanding the recognition of Bangla as a state language. In time we became aware of the economic exploitation of the province. I remember buying a booklet for six annas titled “Bhaggobirombito Purbo Pakistan” (East Pakistan forsaken by fate). I was twelve at the time. The booklet showed with appropriate statistics how foreign exchange earned through jute exports was being used to finance development projects in West Pakistan. Thorough economic analysis paved the way to the six-point demand for autonomy. After Ayub Khan’s fall in 1969, his successor General Yahya organised the first national election at the end of 1970, and the Awami League won a majority, having swept up nearly all the seats in East Pakistan.
In January, 1971, as one of the three winners in the All Pakistan poetry contest organised by the USIS, I went to Lahore for the prize giving and the reading. The people I met told me they were waiting for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to take over as Pakistan's Prime Minister— Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister.
Soon after my return to Dhaka, things began to turn sour. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto bloodymindedly refused to accept Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Prime Minister. Yahya launched pointless talks between the contending parties while surreptitiously carrying on a military build-up. And on the night of the 25th of March a brutal crackdown and the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman finished off Pakistan.
It faced us with an existential choice. One could lie low, bow down to the occupying army, try to get out of the country, or join the resistance that sprang up spontaneously, and with Indian help grew in strength over the months.
I joined the resistance. This was the only choice that would make me feel that my existence was authentic. After undergoing a crash course of Military training, I commanded a company in battle. When we were fighting, we had one aim: to drive the occupation army out and to fly the Bangladesh flag over Dhaka. There was no time for ideological debates. These and the formulation of constitutional principles came after victory had been achieved. And one has to admit that the ideological questions have not been fully resolved.
I've said elsewhere that it was a people’s war; ordinary villagers, not all illiterate, made up my company. Just a few of them had completed high school. They were driven by resentment and idealism. The idealism was a naive belief that independence would usher in a utopia. I tried to disabuse them, knowing full well what struggles awaited us after the devastation that was being wrought by the war. To no avail. The heartbreak the youths suffered was inevitable. And only now, after all these years, do they get a half decent monthly allowance.
The resentment had to do with the psychological damage wrought by colonialism. The process of strengthening colonial ideology after the 1857 Uprisings has been thoroughly documented. Since the rebels came mainly from the Gangetic Plains, the British stopped recruiting soldiers in this region, labelling its inhabitants as non-martial races, and now recruited mainly from the peoples who had remained loyal to the colonisers. They hailed from the Punjab, and the upcountry hills, and were lauded as the martial races. Kipling amply demonstrates the stereotyping in his writings. After Partition the “martial” Punjabis and Pathans, having imbibed the racism of their former masters, looked down upon the “non-martial” Bengalis of East Pakistan. The reaction in 1971 was predictable—anti-racist racism; to the resistance, anyone who didn't look Bengali was suspect. One of my friends who was on his way to joining the resistance, and who unfortunately did not conform to the physical stereotype of the dark and diminutive Bengali, was killed by those whom he wanted to join.
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In Bangladesh's national narrative, there is a clear line of development from the language movement through the movement for autonomy to the independence war. Bangla is central to the nation's self-image. Spirited lobbying led to the UNESCO's recognition of the 21st of February, the day of the Bengali language martyrs, as International Mother Language Day. A salutary fallout of this has been growing awareness of our linguistic multiplicity. According to one count, there are 38 languages in Bangladesh. All of them deserve respectful attention and study, and acceptance as valuable parts of our cultural mosaic. We even have a group of Urdu writers who hold regular mushayras. It is worth pointing out that some of our Urdu writers spoke out in support of the Bangla language movement in 1952.
As soon as the independence war ended, what is now known as the demographic dividend manifested itself in a somewhat unexpected way—an urge to get out of the country. This set off a trend that is increasing with globalisation. Today there are Bangladeshis in every inhabited continent. They come from all classes, and sometimes defy the law to seek a new life in another land. Readers of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island have encountered for the first time the determination, desperation, and pathos of those who take to the migrant trail. It’s a wonderful narrative which, incidentally, gives the lie to the thesis in the keynote address. It shows how a novelist can deal with the issues of today, blending the Manasa legends of Bengali folklore, the high tech world of internet communication, the underworld of human trafficking, the lives of so- called illegal immigrants, and the threat of an ecological catastrophe. Interestingly, the novel straddles Indian Bengal and Bangladesh, and the Sundarbans, where much of the action takes place, exemplifies a terrain where Bengalis from both sides of the border interact in terms of equality and amity.
Attention is sometimes drawn to the relations between the Bangla language communities in the two Bengals. That there are great variations in the Bangla spoken in different districts is inevitable. There is also a perceived opposition between Kolkata and Dhaka, as was reflected in the debate at the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2019 on the topic “Bangla culture: Dhaka vs. Kolkata.” The motion was that Kolkata represented Bangla’s past glory and Dhaka its future. Points made by two of the speakers against the motion deserve attention. The artist Shubhaprasanna contemptuously dismissed as un-Bengali the use of words in Bangladesh like “jee” or “khala” or “khalu”. It seems he was obviously unaware that the Muslims of West Bengal who comprise 30% of the population use these words as well.
In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the Hindu community, which now makes up 10% of the population, use “mashi”, “pishi” but also use “jee”. What’s there to object? It’s all a question of usage. And another speaker, the writer Swapnomoy Chakraborty, while lauding Kolkata’s absorption into Bangla usage of un-Bengali expressions like Jug jug jio or Durga mai ki jay or Le halua couldn’t stomach this bit of doggerel from Bangladesh. Bangla amar Kolija re bhai/Bangla amar jaan/Phul bagichay bulbuli dey / fazr er azaan. It’s not the fact that this is doggerel that he objected to but the use of certain words like fazr er azaan, jaan, phul bagichay. No comment is necessary, except that one would have thought such puerile prejudice would die a natural death.
It has its counterparts in Bangladesh as well. I remember reading an article by an eminent intellectual who passed away not long ago, in which he complained that the West-Bengali writers did not regard Bangladeshis as Bengalis; and he referred to the first page of Shrikanto. Famously, the narrator mentions that at a football match between the Bengali boys and the Muslim boys, there is a rumpus. Again, it's only a question of usage. In East Bengal, no Hindu writer would have used this particular form of expression. If in the West Bengali usage of Saratchandra’s time there was a distinction between (Hindu) Bengalis and (Bengali speaking) Muslims, it's just a matter of the way the language was used. It does not necessarily reflect any deeper prejudice.
Underlying this debate is the question of the dominance of Kolkata as the source of modern literary Bengali. Yes, modern literary Bengali developed in Kolkata for historical reasons. The East India Company set up its Bengal headquarters there.
There had been talk before that of setting up the factory in Chittagong. Imagine what shape literary Bangla would have then assumed or, for that matter, what the geopolitical map would have been like today, if Chittagong had become the capital of the Bengal presidency, and subsequently of British India. Kolkata’s dominance over the modern Bengali literary scene has had the unfortunate result pointed out by Sudeepto Kabiraj in an essay in Sheldon Pollock’s anthology Literary Cultures and History that the Muslim contribution to pre-colonial Bangla literature has not been properly studied.
One could in fact argue that pre-colonial Bangla literature, whether written by Hindu or Muslim writers, has not received due attention. This is what led me to produce the composite prose retelling of The Triumph of the Snake Goddess, which is a retelling of the Manasa legends. I hope to continue with other texts. For example, Nabibangsha by Syed Sultan, a 16th century text, which beautifully exemplifies the way Sufism in Bengal created a syncretistic literature. It would wonderfully illustrate Asheesh Nandy’s comment that Islam in the subcontinent has been an extremely creative cultural manifestation. The book gives biographical accounts of all the prophets— down to the prophet of Islam. Among the prophets, we find Hari or Vishnu. Vishnu is dealt with as one of the prophets sent to mankind. If we paid due critical attention to texts like this, we might have been more liberal in cultural outlook.
Another point that Kabiraj makes is to note the rise of English as the favoured language of creative and cultural expression among Indian Bengalis. This is not true to the same extent in Bangladesh. But even here, there is a growing body of writing in English, even though, unlike India, Bangladesh does not formally accord a place to English in its cultural life; still, English is the de facto second language of the educated classes.
Oscar Wilde once quipped that the only thing one can do with history is rewrite it. Those who take this quip to heart will be less prone to consider anything to have absolute validity.
Take for instance the received narrative of the departure of the British. Today, even a Nehruvian nationalist like Mr Tharoor acknowledges that “It is increasingly argued that Gandhi could embarrass the British, but not overthrow them. It was when soldiers who had sworn their loyalty to the British Crown rebelled during the Second World War and the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy joined the mutiny and fired their own cannons at British Government installations that the British realised the game was up.”
Mr Tharoor does not mention who led the rebels in World War II, and who was the inspiration behind the naval mutiny. It was of course, India's lost leader, after whom the institution hosting this conference is named. So, let me end by once again thanking the host institution, and the conference organisers, particularly Dr Srideep Mukherjee, who first reached out to me.
(The recording of the speech was transcribed by Rifat Anjum Pia)
Kaiser Haq is Bangladesh’s preeminent English language poet. His poetry collections include Pariah and Other Poems (Bengal Lights Books 2013), and Published in the Streets of Dhaka: collected poems (Dhaka: UPL 2012). His translations include a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Quartet (Heinemann Asian Writers Series, 1993), and a retelling of the Bengali epic The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Harvard University Press).