Friday, June 14, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Are we really pluralistic?

Update : 23 Mar 2015, 06:22 PM

Pleas for pluralism are not new in our country -- one recently appeared in the DT -- but these are often girded with references to the pre-colonial past. History certainly has its place, but using the past alone as justification for pluralism ignores the complex Bangladesh of the present.

Bangladesh has to be diverse. As one of the largest countries in the world (eighth largest by population), there are more Bangladeshis roaming the planet than, say, there are Russians. It should not be surprising, then, that this humongous populace is diverse in ideology, interests, and ambitions. People in such large numbers are bound to be heterogenous.

On the whole, however, diverse is not a word we use to describe Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis tend to view the country through the narrow lens of their personal experiences. To some extent, it may be the fault of popular culture, which eschews complexity in favour of uniformity.

Our political establishment doesn’t help either, by painting the country in two broad strokes. Increasingly on the Internet, as well as in real life, Bangladesh is not presented as what it is but as either the liberal Dhaka University campus or the orthodox madrasa classroom.

 Still, in a crowd of Bangladeshis, each can look like they belong to a different part of the world -- our gene pool, after all, is mixed. Today, our government identifies three genders instead of two.

We speak a dozen languages and belong to several ethnicities. Bangladeshis are among the world’s poorest; a handful are among the wealthiest. Some live in cities, many in the countryside. Bangladeshis uphold traditions that are hundreds of years in the making, many choose to break those and move on.

We live all over the globe -- not just the motherland -- bringing with us the culture and ideologies of disparate civilisations when we return home. All this is to say that there is not one unique Bangladeshi experience that binds us all, and we are all the better for it.

When we ignore this diversity, we do so to our own detriment. Take the issue of language. Besides Bangla, there are at least a dozen other indigenous languages that belong to the people of Bangladesh.

Step outside the major urban areas today and the hegemonic power of Bangla and the elitism of English are easily felt, slowly eroding indigenous languages and, along with them, the natural identities of many citizens of this country. Lack of national consciousness about this issue and many others like it undermine all efforts at an inclusive society.

As many have pointed out, the problem lies in imposing the construct of a nation on what has historically been a diverse landscape. Like every nation, we yearn to define what is and what is not Bangladeshi, to find the real Bangladesh.

In search for authenticity, and perhaps in reaction to a neighbour that strives for diversity, we have largely stayed away from a broad and tolerant definition of what it means to be Bangladeshi.

Factions seek to weed out competition and defend against imagined enemies along the lines of culture and religion. The murder of Avijit Roy comes to mind but so should the intolerant argument of Lipika Pelhman in the New York Times. This is a mistake.

There is of course no “real” Bangladesh -- it does not exist. We live in a complicated country and our present is as complex as our past. Nationhood has changed many things but there should be no doubt that upscale shopping malls and rickshaws are just as Bangladeshi as Hajj camps, which are as Bangladeshi as Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, English medium schools, and public toilets, which are as Bangladeshi as tea stalls and roadside restaurants. No one has a claim on the “real” Bangladesh. Let us embrace complexity in our search to find ourselves. 

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