Monday, June 17, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

A nation seeking self-respect

Update : 28 Dec 2013, 06:28 PM

Needless to say, Bengal is an ancient entity with a history spanning millennia.  However, its new avatar as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is only in its mere youth. And just like many teenage nations trying to fit into this modern post-industrial society, Bangladesh too is having its fair share of identity issues.

Of the many recent tantrums harrowing this youth of a nation, last week’s demand by the Ganajagaran protestors to cut off diplomatic relations with Pakistan over a provincial resolution grabbed my attention instantly.

Equally voiced calls from various Bangladeshi ministers meant that this outrage was not just limited to the contingent at Shahbagh; it seemed Bangladeshis across divisions were furious at what seemed to be another affront to their identity, another stab at their respect.

This backlash got me thinking on a very simple question – how much respect does a common Bangladeshi have of his own nation, and furthermore, of himself?

Regardless of whether one thinks Bangladesh was solely intended for Bengali Muslims, or Bengalis regardless of religious background, or a multicultural population living in a “Bengalised” society, the common denominator seems to be the concept of Bengaliness. And it is this very factor that seems to carry the most controversy when it comes to self-identity and self-respect.

It’s not uncommon to hear a Bangladeshi nonchalantly blame “Bangali’r jaat” (the Bengali ethnicity) for the many wrongdoings of this country. This term, “Bangali’r jaat”, is overwhelmingly used only in a negative connotation spanning a variety of scenarios. For example:

Joking amongst friends about someone being late? “Bangali’r jaat.”

Blaming someone for scamming you in a store? “Bangali’r jaat.”

Traffic jams, air pollution, bastardised Hindi cinema? Yup, you guessed it – “Bangali’r jaat.” 

Even a religion that preached ethnic and social equality didn’t seem to ameliorate this case of collective low self-esteem; being Bengali somehow makes us inferior Muslims in our own eyes, as if centuries of syncretic Islam on our philosophy-sodden soil meant nothing, thus we increasingly turn to foreign-imported brands of Islam to satisfy our sense of the self.

We have absorbed so much negativity within this ethnic identity that we forget that in the greater South Asian historical context, the Bengali adjective had and still has its many strengths. It wasn’t long ago that Bengali was synonymous to intellectualism and the arts. Those yearly cyclones can’t wear away our epitaph of resilience and perseverance. Centuries of cohabiting with people of various races and religions correctly describe us as tolerant and hospitable. 

This recent decry for diplomatic disruption with Pakistan, as well as these past weeks of political turbulence, are various facets of Bangladesh’s youthful vulnerability. The nation was afterall born of multiple traumatic severances.

However, the people of Bangladesh have to recognise that its days of insecurity and self-degradation need to soon come to an end if it were to achieve any respect from others. Bangladesh has to work towards a mature civic society based on a strong consensual sense of identity.

We have to remind ourselves that the Bangladeshi identity cannot be dictated by Begums sitting in their high thrones. It is not just contained within the man-made political boundaries zigzagging through fields and families indiscriminately.

Whether or not the identity gives primacy in Bengaliness or in Islam or secular pluralism, Bangladesh has to accept that its sense of the self extends far beyond into the neighbouring nations, the region, and its position in the globalised world.

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