Looking at the historical forces in the process of building a state
Interpretation of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s role and identity in the struggle leading to 1971 and Bangladesh suffers from traditionalism. Objective analysis is burdened by use of both nationalist or socialist markers. Both ideas are rooted in the traditional colonial interpretation of history that continues to haunt our middle class intelligentsia.
Such frameworks were unquestioned before socialism collapsed and nationalism too became a questionable mode of political interpretation. Although most people carry many cultural identities, establishment historians see Sheikh Mujib as a primary “Bengali nationalist.” This idea grew in post-1947 politics to develop a contest of “Muslim Pakistan” which Bangladesh fought.
Cultural identities and livelihood history
Bengali nationalists see history begin on 1947, August 14 -- Pakistan’s birth -- and not as a continuity of a long struggle going back to the early colonial era. For them, only the Bengali national identity matters, countering Pakistan’s Islamic one.
To them, Bangladeshis are dominantly ethnic Bengali and not faith-based Muslim, rather than having a historical shared experience-based identity. They don’t see socio-economic history play the major role in developing the path to 1971. Hence, the Pakistan-Bangladesh conflict is more ethno-centric rather than livelihood struggle based.
The cultural differences between East and West Pakistan are highlighted, making the issue a national cultural failure project that had economic-political implications.
However, that makes Sheikh Mujib look like a somewhat confused politician. Since the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis before 1947 supported Bengal Muslim League and Sheikh Mujib was a member of that, it makes him a sort of an “anti-Bengali” nationalist and more pro-Muslim Pakistani before 1947. But he fought Pakistan and India both and that is not explained concretely.
Many Bengali nationalists say that BML activists including Sheikh Mujib saw their “error” after 1947, particularly 1952, and became proper Bengalis. But that means an entire people were wrong before 1947, including Sheikh Mujib and corrected themselves after 1947.
Extreme elitism apart, it doesn’t explain why they did so, why both support and why they continued to support the same politicians before and after 1947.
The problem of nationalist fundamentalism
Making Bengali nationalism the fundamental identity is rooted in the efforts to deny the Pakistan identity after 1947 though this is unnecessary as people constructed their own politics borrowing from none. Saying 1952 is the seminal moment of Bangladesh’s journey results in the denial of both socio-economic factors involved and historical continuity.
It means Bangladesh’s historical search for state identity was also only 20 years old in 1971 (1952-1971).
It’s not just political convenience that makes Sheikh Mujib be seen as a Bengali nationalist by a section of people. Nationalism’s conceptual limitation to deal with livelihood and other non-cultural issues as part creators of history is also responsible.
The dominant theme of any history is reacting to threats to livelihood by others. Which is why the anti-colonial resistance movements were located in peasant uprisings though mostly led by the disgruntled upper/middle class.
While the middle class has differed and changed over time, the peasantry has remained. It’s in understanding the link between the peasantry and political leadership that Sheikh Mujib has to be interpreted. And that relationship is not built on nationalist identity but much wider and multiple ones.
Why many fail to read Sheikh Mujib as a leader of collective aspirations for better livelihood is because that could marginalize the nationalist interpreter’s role itself. It also doesn’t get primacy because that would contest colonial/Westernized concepts of people’s struggles.
Most colonial justification analysis is based on race, ethnic, and cultural supremacy of the colonizer. Counter-colonialism is also based on similar cultural markers. Both focus on modernism -- peasants are backward in this scheme -- in legitimizing colonialism and colonial collaboration too. It works in post-colonial state making discourse too.
History began long before 1947
Production of 1947 Pakistan meant killing the idea of an independent state which was decided in 1940 but ended in 1946 by the Muslim League. The near birth of an independent Bengal state was killed in 1947 by Congress. Both India and Pakistan were produced by colonial-inspired rulers unhappy with Bangladesh even before 1947.
Bangladesh was historically different from both because the peasantry, the history makers, didn’t emerge as part of the collaborationist framework. They grew out of resistance to the same.
Nationalism as a cause was championed by this collaborationist class but since power belonged to the peasantry -- as resistors, as voters, or as the birth attendants of the state in 1971 -- an alliance between the two was needed, which worked to generate enough historical muscle to produce states.
Such a framework doesn’t fit into the conventional Bengali nationalism mode. In fact, it challenges the notion of nationalism itself. Are peasants a nation? Is a multi-class community a nation? Is nationalism able to explain the birth of Bangladesh and Sheikh Mujib’s role within the Indian and the Pakistani nation-state equation while opposing both?
Reading Sheikh Mujib
An authentic reading of Sheikh Mujib and his history requires a journey beyond the colonial markers of “nationalism” kick-off dates. The declaration of March 7 in 1971 distills 200 years of history of many identities into a moment.
Nationalism can hardly explain the peasantry’s historical vision as their world is lived through villages, not national cultures. Nationalism may explain the spirit of the urban political radicals and other middle class elements, but the peasant which became the biggest armed and unarmed force of history in 1971 didn’t carry a nationalism badge.
Just as Bangladesh’s history is unconventional and its Liberation War more so, the Jinnah-Nehru model can’t be applied to understand the non-elite history of Bangladesh. To look at Sheikh Mujib through the narrow lenses of linguistic nationalism is to ignore the historical force which had been in the process of building a state for almost 200 years and bloomed in 1971.
Afsan Chowdhury is a researcher and journalist.