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OP-ED: Barcelona to Bangladesh

  • Published at 06:24 am February 24th, 2021
Spain far-right party Vox supporters barcelona
Supporters of Spain’s far-right party Vox on the streets of Barcelona REUTERS

The language of liberation is more than a contest over words and flags

On February 14, Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia went to vote. The pro-independence parties increased their share from 70 to 74 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament. Bangladesh remembered the seminal events of February 21, 1952. Meanwhile, Myanmar saw soldiers rolling in hours before the political parties could form a new administration. 

One-third of the country might be forgiven for seeing it as a stand-off between the civilian and military halves of the dominant Bamar majority in a country racked with permanent conflicts over sovereignty.

A precedent?

The Spanish Civil War ended a few months before the start of World War II. One of the last to fall to General Franco’s fascist forces was Barcelona. Much of the army had launched a coup against a democratically elected Republican government. The civil war became a bloody contest between the right and religion against modern progressive politics. 

A subset were the Basques and Catalans who fought on the Republican side, but also wanted independence from Spain. When the fascists won in 1939, Franco enacted a ban on the use of the Basque and Catalan language, for Spanish. This would last till the 1970s. Jinnah and the Bengali progressives were aware of the war in Spain and its aftermath. Thus, the lawyer in Jinnah might have seen a precedent in southern Europe, to apply to southern Asia.

Destiny in Dacca (Dhaka)

It was almost as if he could not see what all the fuss was about. Jinnah regally informed audiences in Dhaka in March 1948 that he would downgrade Bengali to a “provincial” language, in the cause of “nation-building.” He was unaware about centuries worth of culture, nation, and history.

The reaction to Jinnah’s outrageous proposal was immediate. Cries of “No to Urdu” would eventually lead to the electoral victory in 1954 of the “United Front” -- an amalgamation of Bengali politics. The spark for that had been the murder of language protestors in 1952. 

The United Front sent a shockwave through the Rawalpindi establishment. The army moved in, dumping democracy in the dustbin. Bengali progressives led the opposition. This was critical. It was not going to be just a fight to speak Bengali as a “state” language. It was also about the liberation and well-being of all the people. 

The common factor uniting the Spanish army in the 1930s and that of Myanmar since the late 1940s was: a) Their armies had no role in terms of defending the country from external enemies, and b) they saw themselves as guardians of a very weak state, at risk of disintegrating. 

Pakistan shows similar tendencies, though its soldiers could claim that they also had an external enemy, India -- allegedly an existential threat. In reality, the designated enemy has always been domestic. There lay disaster.

When is a nation not a state?

A driving force behind politics in South Asian states has been the notion of nation against state. People loosely interchange the terms “nations” with “states.” That confusion lies with the dominant majorities. Minorities understand the difference. A state can have many nations within it. 

Myanmar is not Bamar, even though two-thirds are from that group. One in three in Myanmar are from other nations. Some want independence. Others want no more than peaceful autonomy and federalism within the state.

In South Asia, one adds a layer of religion, bringing with it another layer of barbed wire. India, a state with a kaleidoscope of nations and peoples, is tearing its society apart on repressing both diversity and deities. 

Still in progress

In Barcelona, Bilbao, and other parts of Europe, the trend for pro-independence forces is increasingly to place social justice as a key plank of the program. They acknowledge that there is little gain in merely substituting a flag and language, unless the entire population sees living standards and distribution of economic resources equitably shared across all spectra of society. 

Feminism and ecology are also now in the mix. This realization of broader goals took many decades to move towards centre-stage. The process remains incomplete. 

Curiously, February 21 is marked by two other anniversaries: The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, and the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. 

Bangladesh and 1971 was an example of achieving freedom “by any means necessary.” The political victory of the Communists in Kolkata in the 1970s was applauded and supported by their “comrades” in what was once known as East Bengal. Many feel true liberation and social justice has not yet been fully achieved, neither in the East nor West. A work still in progress?

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst. @liquid_borders.

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