Thursday, June 13, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Determining Bangladesh

Update : 26 Mar 2015, 06:17 PM

The right to self-determination is a much coveted thing. People and nations across the world fight for it, die for it and even kill for it. At the moment, a number of struggles for self-determination are underway, at various stages of maturity, involving Australian Aboriginals, the Basque, the Kurds, Catalonia, certain groups within Baluchistan, the Uyghur, Tibet and of course the Palestinians.

All of these groups are desperate to establish an independent polity within which they can determine their own destinies -- according to their own values and priorities. A less palatable example of this are even the people behind Daesh, who are attempting to create a new country in the place of Iraq and Syria, where they can invent their own sort of social, political, and economic systems. And even though many of us would not ever want to live in the House that Daesh Builds, their desire to build one is something that we as Bangladeshis should be able to relate to perfectly.

A Bengali desire to live according to our own values and determine our own destinies is a lot older than the current state of Bangladesh. Its most recent incarnation is only slightly younger than the Indian struggle for independence from British colonial rule, and though Bengali revolutionaries fought for the All-India cause, a differentiated Bengali nation-state was also always on the cards.

As late as May 1947, just three months before India and Pakistan became a reality, a secular, undivided, and independent Bengal was tabled and supported by much of the Bengali leadership at the time, Hindu and Muslim alike, including Sarat Chandra Bose, Abul Hashim, Huseyn Suhrawardy, and Kiran Shankar Roy.

In fact, an undivided independent Bengal, including parts of Bihar and Assam, was the majority position, with only a minority voice, led by Khawaja Nazimuddin, supporting the partitioning of the province and a bifurcated Pakistan. 

On May 20, 1947, the following terms were agreed upon by a majority of Bengal’s leader at the time:

Bengal would be a Free State. The Free State of Bengal would decide its relations with the rest of India. The Constitution of the Free State of Bengal would provide for election to the Bengal Legislature on the basis of a joint electorate and adult franchise, with reservation of seats proportionate to the population among Hindus and Muslims. A new interim ministry consisting of an equal number of Muslims and Hindus, but excluding the chief minister would be formed. In this ministry, the chief minister would be a Muslim, and the home minister a Hindu. Pending the final emergence of a legislature and a ministry under the new constitutions, Hindus and Muslims would have an equal share in the services, including military and police. The services would be manned by Bengalis. A Constituent Assembly composed of 30 persons, 16 Muslims and 14 non-Muslims, would be elected by Muslim and non-Muslim members of the legislature respectively, excluding Europeans.

But the desire for an independent Bengali state is even older than this, by centuries. In fact, it might even be more convenient to speak of Bengal as an independent polity that has repeatedly been absorbed into expansionist regional kingdoms since as early as the Mauryan Empire.

The first modern Bengali state may have been Shoshanko’s, followed by the Palas, who came to power through a democratic process, one of the oldest recorded instances of democracy in South Asia.

In the Medieval Age, Bengal repeatedly broke away from a Delhi-based imperial order, earning it the nickname of Bulgakhana -- the place of turbulence. Within just four years after Delhi’s takeover of Bengal, Ali Mardan, the governor of the province declared independence and began a protracted struggle against the Sultanate of Delhi which lasted for over a hundred years, until the 1300s, when Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah established his own Sultanate, the Sultanate of Bangala, that stood for 233 years as a distinct cultural and political space.

The desire for independence is often about economics, even Bangladesh’s independence has, at its roots, our economic exploitation within Pakistan, but values play a major part in the process as well, and the right to determine our own affairs according to our own values is an enormous privilege. It’s been fought hard for by our ancestors, and every day, around the world, people are fighting for their right to have it too.

But this right comes with responsibilities that behove an independent people - responsibilities like justice, civil liberties, good governance, social welfare and economic well being. For the state of Bangladesh to honour the sacrifices of the people that made our independence possible, it has to reflect their values and values that are central to Bengali culture.

Otherwise, it will not really be able to claim any legitimacy as a Bengali country. It has to, at the very least, reflect the four pillars upon which the republic was founded -- secularism, nationalism, socialism, and democracy.

We have the opportunity, an opportunity denied to many people, to run a country according to principles and priorities that we have, as a nation and as a culture, deemed essential. These principles are violated by the economic exploitation that has never ceased, by the corruption that erodes our institutions, by the denial of justice and civil liberties and by the shrunken democratic space -- all of which have become endemic parts of Bengali statehood. They have become so ingrained in fact, that one might look at Bangladesh and think Bengali culture has no moral fibre at all.

I can’t think of a more effective way to dishonour everything that we have stood for, and fought for, for over a thousand years. 

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