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Three identities and one history

  • Published at 05:06 pm February 25th, 2019
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Was 1952 the beginning or the middle ?

Class, community and territory form the primary triad force of state making.  The first two are multiple - that is, there are various layers and clusters within them.  There are clearly several classes involved in any politics but they often join hands  to form alliances to make political gains. The same goes for community based markers, whether language or faith based or other markers as our history shows. 

However, in the case of territory, this is limited to one but it can also be split realities often spilling over into other states as well. Sometimes, even those living on one territory may choose to become part of another state or be forced into one. However, they are often unsustainable propositions. This was in case of East Pakistan/Bangladesh becoming a part of Pakistan or the Indian National Congress sponsored partition of Bengal in 1947 becoming a part of India.

When did Bangladesh begin ?

When did Bangladesh begin is also not a certain or settled issue. It is created by the interplay of the above three markers and interpreted by the members of the three clusters in line with their historical experience. It shows that not all issues pertaining to statehood are settled once and for all. History is too multiple to be bound within one or two packages only. 

Many in Bangladesh, particularly from the urban middle class, often see the Language Movement of 1952 as a starting point of sorts, currently a state friendly narrative. To them, the protest against the imposition of Urdu triggered the journey to Bangladesh. Hence, the primary identity is language, we are Bengalis, this is Bengali nationalism and so on.

However, the language issue within the Muslim League was decades old before 1947 and can be seen even during the formative days of Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906. Professor Harunur Rashid in his book The Foreshadowing  of Bangladesh has described how Bengali Muslims successfully resisted the attempt to impose Urdu as the sole language of the Indian Muslim League. 

In 1937, another effort was made but by then the Bengal Muslim League after its political victory in Bengal and the government formation was very strong and had much more clout, and the effort was demolished. In 1947-48, the effort to do the same for the state as a whole and not just the party faced the same level of resistance from the same class belonging to the Bengali community. 

This community did so when they were members of the Indian ML and did so when they were part of a new party, the Awami Muslim League in Pakistan. It was essentially the middle class, educated Bengali Muslims who took the leadership to which other communities were drawn to form of a broader political movement. Language was the tool to achieve this inter-community alliance, a common marker. 

The middle class reaction and peasant participation

Thus, the state language strategy of Pakistan to dominate the majority in the new state was not a new one. What it actually did was gel the class into resistance formations and helped them to develop a new idiom of struggle. This led to the inclusion of the Hindu middle class, who would have suffered the same under this move. 

Thus the Bangla language movements did two things - it let the entire range of middle class unite into a political alliance as the enemy could be identified easily - non-Bengalis. And it also led to political activism and later militancy that prepared it to form an alliance with the rural poor in 1971 in order to become part of a national independence movement. 

The peasant class was politically active long before the middle class matured in East Bengal/Bangladesh. Deeply affected by colonial rule, it made an inter-class based alliance with the ousted rural economy-based, religious, professional middle class. This happened during the Fakir-Sannyasi movement and the Faraizi movement. Peasants also lent shoulders to the ousted upper class -  the feudal regime of mostly Central Asian origin zamindars who were orphaned after the 1793 Permanent Settlement. 

Later, they even fought colonialism on their own when such allies were missing. They supported the Communists as well. The peasant class therefore, was more used to resisting, while the middle class was more used to collaborating. In the midst of this historical process, both often collaborated with each other. It had happened in the past as mentioned and it also happened later in 1971.

The Language Movement phase was an intermediate phase before the big push of 1971, but not its generator. It allowed the middle class  to get ready for the push towards what they sought - a middle class led state -  and was delayed by 1947.  In that sense, the middle class was reactive and needed a trigger to remind them that collaboration with Pakistan wouldn’t work. The fact that Pakistan wasn’t even interested in collaboration with the East Pakistani middle class was made obvious by the series of events since late 1947. Language was the most emotive one but the foundation was in socio-economic denial. 

AL and the political markers of 1952

What made 1952 possible was the birth of Awami Muslim League in 1949, which created a new political force to function in the existing space. The “rebirth” of the party – BML to AML- was a sign that the political equations hadn’t changed but the markers had. 

Sheikh Mujib and Bhashani - the two in particular, represented the mainstream political momentum and that is why the defining nature of a longer movement was so quickly established and saw its first fruits in the 1954 elections. The Left was also able to participate in the bigger space created by the mainstream party.   

Community, class and territorial identity therefore became one in this movement, which turned into a national one. However, it didn’t begin in 1952 or even 1948 but had earlier roots. For the peasants, the link went deep into history when colonialism began. For the newly invented middle class, the opportunity to regroup and reframe themselves was signified by the state Language Movement.

Mother language was not the issue but the gentrified Bangla of offices, academia and bureaucracy was. The state language access preserved incomes for the middle. The two streams merged into one but Bangladesh is not the result of a reaction to a stupid and self destructive decision by Pakistan Muslim League at Karachi. By citing February 1952 as the birth moment, we run the risk of ignoring all past struggles of the peasants, the bhadrolok and the politicians.  

Bangladesh wasn’t created by a repressive decision of Pakistan - it was produced by its its long historic struggle against oppression of many kinds, going back to the earliest colonial era.