The War for Bangladesh:
A Struggle to Restore our Cultural Values
ALY ZAKER recalls Bangladesh's independence movement as a battle for cultural freedom and growth.
Before dwelling in detail upon today's 'universe of discourse', permit me, in due diligence, to table some definitions of culture. Culture, as we all know, is an intrinsic component of the subject of Anthropology and, therefore, I shall fall back on its definition as given by Anthropologists and social thinkers.
EB Tylor describes culture as:
"all that which is non-biological and socially transmitted in a society, including artistic, social, ideological, and religious patterns of behavior, and the techniques for mastering the environment. The term culture is often used to indicate a social grouping that is smaller than a civilization but larger than an industry"
Gustav Klemm offered in the mid-19th century an extremely modern definition of culture which is:
"Customs, information and skills, domestic and public life in peace and war, religion, science and art[...] It is manifest in the transmission of past experience to the new generation."
Herskovits has characterised culture as:
"Being learned, structured, divisible into aspects, dynamic and variable, and stemming from every component of human existence. Moreover, its regularities permit it to be analyzed and it is the means by which a person adjusts to his environment and expresses himself."
Therefore, there is no debate about the fact that culture is more than music and histrionics, painting and photography, religion and tradition, so on and so forth. It is indeed life itself in its myriad practices, beliefs and industry. It is more than meets the eye.
The reason for my elaborating on the anthropological definition or description of culture is that, unless we see our history of struggle emanating in to the war of liberation and creation of Bangladesh from the point of view of the cultural whole, we will not be putting the perspective right. It is not our emotion that was solely responsible in opting for an armed struggle against Pakistan, but it was the cultural subjugation of a distinctly identifiable group of people with a national identity that made it necessary for them to assert themselves. Emotion, needless to say, played a very important role in harnessing the sense of rebellion to go forward.
At this point, permit me to mention briefly the history of the creation of Pakistan that led to our being known as East Pakistanis. When Mohammad Ali Jinnah said that "Islam is a nation" and advanced his two-nation theory, he knowingly or unknowingly made a blunder. I say "knowingly" because it is hard to believe that being the astute politician that he was, he would not have thought about the improbability of his assertion.
We all know by now that Jinnah was not given so much to religion as a devoutly religious person would. He had an issue to settle with the Indian National Congress, particularly Jawaherlal Nehru and Ballav Bhai Patel, which is why even without realising the consequences, he decided to fan up a communal confrontation. This is antiquated sub-continental politics of the upper class of India that is not my subject for this article today. Therefore, I would best refrain from discussing it. So, Pakistan was curved out of the Muslim majority areas in India whereby we became a part of it. Religion perhaps was the only common denominator between us and what comprises Pakistan today. Even in the practice of religion and the rituals, we are different.
While the Bengalis of the region were keen to explore their cultural legacy and enrich the modern practice of any art form, the establishment of Pakistan derided links with the past culture, especially its practice amongst the common people.
Just as it is true that the majority of people living in what comprises Bangladesh today had voted to join Pakistan, it is also true that it is not the religious affinity alone that induced this positive attitude towards the new country. Clearly, the Bengali Muslim population in East Bengal comprised mostly the common landless peasants ruled over by the Hindu Zamindars. This ruling feudal class was, if anything, not at all kind in their attitude to the ruled. This is true of any feudal class structure. In this, there is no difference between the religions of the ruling class. There were only a few Muslim feudal lords here then. The Muslim League was largely a party of the Muslim feudal lords and Businessmen. Their leaders in Bengal told them that Pakistan would bring them a life that they never dreamed of. That all Hindu Zamindars would migrate to Hindustan and 'they' would become Zamindars. On becoming Pakistanis, they discovered that not only were they cheated of the promise of economic emancipation, they were also progressively being deprived of the long cherished social practices that they had lived for. They were asked to change their language. This followed the mutilation of rituals, entertainment, lifestyle and all that reflected Bengalis as a distinctly different nation.
A nation must have a number of things in common, these being language, religion, food, performing art, literature, clothing, habitat, rituals, etc. On each of these criteria, we are different from Pakistan. Well, on a number of parameters mentioned here, even different regions comprising Pakistan today differ with each other. But again, that is Pakistan's headache and not my subject of today. We were born as Pakistan with multiple differences between us and our other wing, over a thousand miles away, and the cultural affinity between the two wings was so little that it was hard to believe that religion alone could unite us to be one nation. Given this, East Bengal or East Pakistan started as a distant cousin of its big brother, West Pakistan. Perhaps we would have had to wait for some more time to realise that for us to be Pakistani was an improbable proposition unless Jinnah himself had made the first reckless dictation in Dhaka that Urdu and Urdu alone should be the state language of Pakistan. We realised that we were a colony that would have its mother tongue severed from it by the new colonialist. A protest ensued as early as in 1948, within one year of the creation of Pakistan. Well, the first onslaught on our culture came through the undermining of our mother tongue. We all know how the Bengalis demonstrating on our mother language were brutalised on February 21 in 1952. Subsequently we discovered that we had decided to go along with a partner that was culturally miles away from us.
I would now shift focus to the activities pertaining to culture as in performing and fine arts, a field that I am actively involved in. Historians say that we have a political history that dates back to the 4th century BC. Linguistically we are 1,300 years old. And archeologically we were around here in the Paleolithic age that dates back to 4000 BC. Recent discoveries in various places of the country bear testimony to that. Therefore, our culture embodies a journey of hundreds and thousands of years. Sociologists say that "culture is one and civilisations are many". During this long journey of what is known as Bangladesh, we have seen many civilisations enriching our culture. By the time we became a part of Pakistan, a definite cultural pattern, both in terms of lifestyle and art had emerged. This, especially our art, came to the present state through a conduit enriched by Charyapada, Mymensingha Geetika, Jatra and narrative theatre of Sri Chaityanna Dev, Micheal Madhusudan Datta, Lalon Shai, Moloya, Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Subsequently this galaxy of extraordinary artistic personalities and their endeavours were enriched in painting by such stalwarts as Zainul Abedin, Qamrul Hasan, Nanda Lal Bose or Ram Kingkor.
The most interesting phenomena that is worth mention against this context is the fact that while the Bengalis of the region called Bangladesh today were keen to explore their cultural legacy and enrich the modern practice of any art form, the establishment of Pakistan derided links with the past culture, especially its practice amongst the common people and kept all their legacies reserved for the patrician Pakistanis. But for Bangladesh there was a different equation. Bengalis wouldn't be caught dead practising their own culture. We were told that practice of any Bengali art form was heretic and contrary to the tenets of Islam as perceived by them. The division that was created by the heavy-handedness of the Pakistanis on the question of our language was hastened by the wanton onslaught of the art and the artists that we revered. Our folk art and the artists were marginalised. Our Jatra was intimidated and pushed to antiquity. Our urban theatre was never given a helping hand. Rabindranath was exiled from the government-owned media and the majority of Nazrul's extraordinary songs were not to be heard in the media. It would not be out of context to mention here that when such an assault was unleashed on Bengali culture, the political scene was heating up. By then our father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had started asking a very basic and pertinent question to the Pakistanis. "How much have you robbed us off? When will you return what you have robbed from us? And when will you leave?" (koto neso? kobe deba? kobe zaba?) These were pertinent not only on the question of our economy but were equally applicable to our culture. We were verily robbed of our cultural identity.
But Bengalis of Bangladesh would take it lying low. They turned around. The dissension took the character of a movement and in 1961 when the Tagore lovers of East Bengal decided to observe his birth centenary with all pomp and magnificence. This angered the Pakistanis. And the then information minister of Pakistan prohibited Tagore songs from being performed in the government-owned media. By this time, the gap between Pakistan and Bangladesh became indeed unbridgeable. Celebration of Pahela Boishakh in the Ramna Park was seen as an opportunity to show the ruling Pakistanis the volatility of Bengali culture. The rest is history.
The political movement under the aegis of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was increasingly given wholehearted and active support by the connoisseurs of Bengali art and culture. Painters like Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan, poets like Sikander Abu Zafar and Shamsur Rahman, singers like Sanjida Khatun, Wahidul Haq, Zahidur Rahman, Ajay Roy -- almost all cultural luminaries of Bangladesh -- spontaneously came forward in support of voicing Bangladesh's dissension against the Pakistani dictates. Proclamation by Bangabandhu of the famous six-point programme gave a tremendous tail wind to the realisation that the Bengalis were a separate nation. In the language of the famous British Novelist Charles Dickens, "It was the best of time. It was the worst of time." It was the best of time because the Bengalis immersed in the rays of its cultural limelight were almost sighting a home that they were longing for. It was the worst of time because the Pakistanis came down upon them with inhuman retribution. People all over rose in unison against their torturous reprisal. "Hark the dark night is over. The celestial light of dawn emerges in the east. Inspiring souls and life itself within and beyond..." wrote Rabindranath, who became the soulmate of all Bengalis. At that point, in time it was well nigh impossible to conjecture which came first -- the song or the speech, the poem or politics? This is how and when Bangladesh blossomed in full glory of its indomitable culture. The subsequent political history is only a matter of record. Suffice it to say that when Bangabandhu was put behind bars on charges of Agartala Conspiracy, a special musical soiree was organised at the Shahid Minar. The walls of Dhaka and all other cities were ornamented with cartoons and graffiti and the students chanted the slogan "We shall break the prison door and bring our leader back home." It might be interesting to note that all of our movements since the language movement of 1952 have to their credit songs, dances or dramas especially written or composed.
Reference must be made here of the historical speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 7, 1971. That speech transcended politics and found its place in the bosom of our culture. In 1971, when the talks between Bangabandhu and Yahya Khan failed and on March 25, when the Pakistani marauders, armed to the teeth, were waiting to unleash their attack on the unarmed Bengalis, a cultural programme reverberating demand for freedom was being chorused from the language martyrs' monuments. Bangabandhu, as we all know, declared the independence of Bangladesh before midnight and called upon all Bengalis to resist the Pakistanis with all their might. The very next day, nine brave sons of Bangladesh rebelled against the authorities of Radio Pakistan in Chittagong and started broadcasting patriotic programs from Shadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendra. Needless to say, this programme was also punctuated by patriotic songs that inspired the people of Bangladesh to turn around and fight the enemy. Culture and politics, tears and aspirations, loss and expectations mingled together through the cultural bondage of a nation so old yet so young.
During the nine months' programmes of the radio in exile, Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra kept the nation alive. Songs and commentary, news and drama were interspersed with Bangabandhu's clarion call to freedom.
The birth of Bangladesh ushered in a flurry of cultural activities in all fields of fine and performing arts. It seemed as if the nation muted by Pakistani occupation has finally found its voice. A cry of joy filled the sky and the age-old culture of the Bengali Nation found its rightful place in the bosom of the newfound land and Bangla culture found its home in Bangladesh. What will happen to our culture in the foreseeable and future unknown is for the future to see. Because culture is a dynamic subject dependent upon cross-fertilisation, dialectics and stream of diverse civilisations. But there is no denying the fact that we are on course as enunciated in the spirit of our war of liberation. For now, I conclude by reciting a few lines from Rabindranath:
"Mother mine, when darkness emerges
(And despair takes over)
You lit the wonder lamp
That becomes the warmth of your love
And I hurry home
Leaving my chores behind
To the ethereal bliss
Of your lap."
Aly Zaker is a prominent cultural personality.