Losing Sight of Priorities
few years ago, Shamim Rahman, a student of the English
Department of Dhaka University, was on the look out
for a couple of books on songs, which the Bangla Academy
had published a long while ago. Shamim went straight
to the sales centre of Bangla Academy and asked the
attending men whether the books were still available.
The attendants asked him to come back an hour later,
which he did. But to his disappointment, Shamim found
out that his desired titles were not there. From the
perfunctory attitude that the attendant showed, Shamim
realised that even if the books were lying somewhere
in the shelves, there was no way of getting his hands
on them. "At the sales centre of Bangla Academy
they do not allow you to browse for yourself, rather
they will show an aversion to sell their own stuff,
they just don't care..." says Shamim.
Tucked away from the public eye, in
one corner of the Academy premises, there is this tiny
building where the sales centre is housed. It is an
unlikely setting for an outlet of an academy that may
not have business in mind, but certainly has a lot to
answer for, as far as instigating the interest of the
Bangla-speaking mass in indigenous culture and knowledge
as a whole.
Academy is the immediate result of the 1952 Language
Movement. Founded on December 3, 1955, it was the election
promise of the United Front who came to power defeating
the Muslim League. The United Front, comprising the
political allies headed by such legendary leaders as
Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, AK Fazlul Huq and H S Suhrawardy,
came to power in 1954. They proposed turning the Burdwan
House into a student hostel and a language research
centre. Later Fazlul Huq, the chief minister of the
newly formed United Front government took initial steps
to set up an academy. But the process was disrupted
as dissolution of the United Front government and imposition
of governor's rule followed in the then East Pakistan.
In June the governor's rule was withdrawn, and the United
Front government were reinstalled, though to enjoy a
short tenure. It was at this time Abu Husain Sarkar,
the new chief minister, inaugurated Bangla Academy.
On that propitious day, the Bangalis
of East Pakistan, for the first time, won their right
to be proud of their racial and cultural origin. The
Academy was the first tangible shape that the Bangali
leaders could give to the aspirations of this populace,
who so far had been engaged only in political agitation
against the hegemony of West Pakistan.
Academy was fashioned after the French Academy. For
a nation, whose meritocrats always suffered from Anglophilia,
this was a revolution. "Bangla Academy was launched
with revolutionary ideas in mind. It produced many classics
in the past. There were books that were even translated
from Persian. Siar-e-Mukaharrim Baharistan i Gayebi
the books that contain historical accounts of East Bengal
are examples," says Sajjad Sharif, a poet and one
of the deputy editors of the daily Prothom Alo. "Somewhere
along the line the number of classics both in translation
and in original research began to dwindle," he
Initially Bangla Academy was run by
a committee, as is the case of any government institution.
Later in 1957, the Bangla Academy Act was passed, giving
the Academy the status of an autonomous organisation.
Financed by the government, it started off boldly setting
its own agendas and designing its own course. In the
Pakistan era, fund constraint was the most lamentable
topic among the academy staffers. Yet the Academy thrived
on whatever pittance it received. The contributions
from scholars like Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, Dr Mohammad
Enamul Huq and their contemporaries made a difference.
Dr Enamul Haq was the first director general of Bangla
Academy. He, along with his contemporary scholars, had
the vision to work towards building a body of knowledge
that would not only reflect the past glories but also
contribute to future developments in the territories
of language, literature, arts and letters. Undoubtedly
these individuals have given the Academy the reputation
that many Bangalis still bank on.
Bashir Al Helal, writer and scholar,
former DG of the Academy, wrote in an article in Prothom
Alo, "Bangla Academy has produced huge volumes
of research works, for which it deserves praise."
He also added that as the academy promotes Bangla and
its yields encompass works on language, literature and
culture, it has appealed to the Bangla-speaking populace
as a whole, and in West Bengal its role has also been
praised." Helal distinguishes a downtrend in publishing
of good books that coincided with the gradual increase
in fund. He says, "During the Pakistan era, the
central government used to allocate a meagre fund for
the Academy, that always seemed to keep the academy
begging for more. But as Bangladesh came into being
and the fund has been fattened, productions of potential
works have dwindled." Shajjad Sharif agrees, and
adds that the Academy has done most of its monumental
works in the sixties, and a few right after the liberation
the years the breadth and scope of the fields of interest
have expanded, yet most of the important research work
was the yield of the generation that grew up before
Bangladesh was born. The birth of a new nation provided
the scope for a lot of rhetoric, but failed utterly
in creating a turf to accommodate new talents. When
it comes to picking the best brains of the nation, Bangla
Academy has shown signs of chronic myopia. As far as
initiatives are concerned, the gear has shifted to unproductive
sectors in the last couple of decades. The academy is
now more about cultural programmes, and stage-centred
activities than about research and cultivation of knowledge.
The book fair is a big event that the mass people consider
to be of immense significance. But should the Academy
provide all the logistics and organisational support
to such an event, is a question that many are raising
The Academy was originally meant to
be the epicentre for extensive research. But often enough
it fell prey to unwarranted interventions, mostly from
the direction of the corridor of power. Pursuit of knowledge,
when interrupted, goes astray. "Bangla Academy
has never been left alone, political influence has always
undermined the independence of the Academy," says
Sharif. This led to a lot of projects that seem plain
misadventures in retrospect. "The Academy has misused
a lot of funds in producing useless books, books that
are unoriginal," opines Salimullah Khan, a scholar
in the field of history and linguistics.
the Awami League government, a hand-picked few received
special treatment. If the number of books by these writers
is any guide, one can clearly detect how the party riding
power can monopolise an institution in order to see
a germination of books produced by people of the their
own political hues. Political belief or ideology is
not the monster that lurks behind this favouritism,
or nepotism. Pure nepotism is the only politics that
intervenes. A manuscript by Habibur Rahman, the Chief
Advisor of the Interim Government of 1996 was shelved
for five years, but as soon as he became Chief Advisor,
the Academy hurriedly published his book.
Academy is often caught in the fad of the season. For
example, at one time there was immense enthusiasm for
research on war. I am not saying that books containing
war documents should not be published. There was this
body that was established to collect and compile all
the documents of the war of '71, they could have taken
up this huge project of bringing out books instead of
Bangla Academy doing it. Bangla Academy should engage
in researches that no other institution would consider
doing," believes Sharif.
Fads, favouritism and monopoly in choosing
the manuscript, these are the things that cast a murky
shadow over this establishment. The most crude feature
is not the emptiness of the research cell on the second
floor of the Burdwan House, which looks like a Victorian
quarter with large, old showcases that seems to have
been abandoned and put up to scare away any intruder.
Neither is the library on ground floor too welcoming
with its stuffy atmosphere and seemingly makeshift arrangement
to facilitate boredom. But what really gives the Academy
a bad name is the selection process. Many consider the
selection process faulty, needing immediate revision.
"The Academy has published a lot of books that
are originals; it published translations like Al Mokaddim
by Ibne Khaldun, Bharat Totto by Al Biruni.
These are good translations from Arabic. It also published
Ancholic Bhasha Obhidhan (The Encyclopeadia
of Colloquial Language), by Dr. Mohammad Shahidullah,
which is an immensely important work," says Khan.
He adds that when the rules of selection are manipulated
the aim of the academy suffers.
Salimullah Khan is also dead against
the project, which is aptly titled -- Bangla Academy
Promit Bangla Banan (Spelling reform). "Don't get
me wrong, I am not against reform, but I must say that
the project taken up during the regime of Ershad is
dictatorial. It is uneducated, corrupt and was hurriedly
done by people who had no formal education and qualification
in the specialty called the modern science of linguistics,"
emphasises Khan. He further adds that the project was
implemented without having to take into consideration
the far-reaching impact on our language and culture.
"Done in a departmental manner, the reform took
off without issuing any announcement and work went on
without consulting scholars," says Khan. The Bangla
spelling reform has done more harm than any Bangla-hating
Arabophile of the past could ever think of inflicting.
letdown is to find a sea of unexplored contemporary
knowledge. In fact the Academy shuns the whole spectrum
of knowledge, in both the international and national
arenas. On the home turf, it avoids publishing works
by Hindu scholars and ignores all knowledge that has
relevance in contemporary thought. "Why shouldn't
we see the works of Binoi Kumar Sarkar in print, who
was a sociologist of some substance?" asks Khan.
He favours publishing of important works of undivided
Bengal irrespective of the religious faith of the scholars.
As for translating the world classics,
it has never dawned on the Academy that books like Orientalism,
by Edward Said, or Madness and Civilisation,
by Foucault, will help change the stagnancy in the area
of the cranium. In Sharif's opinion, Bangla Academy
should be the aakor (the fundamental source) of Bangali
knowledge. Both in the creative and intellectual fields,
it should be the pioneer." He also believes that
"along with the classics of the world it should
also delve into contemporary knowledge and creativity".
About the standard of the original books
a lot can be said. Salimullah Khan is of the opinion
that the Academy is short on original publications long
on dross. He believes that both in research and in the
field of creative writing, originality must be given
priority. He also adds that most of the problems lie
in the process of selection. The selection process,
the crucial decision to ditch one manuscript to pick
another that will be added to the long list of academy
publications, is faulty and in dire need of revision.
Al Helal, suggested a survey to assess the achievement
of the Academy. This would only work when the routine
interventions would no longer pester this national institute.
In 2003, Bangla Academy completed its
35 years. On that year the number of publications stood
at 4365 thousand. These are just figures. It is the
qualitative considerations by which the outputs of the
Academy should be measured. It has long been running
out of many old classics. The reprinting has been put
on hold on the ground that during the previous government
a lot of reprinting was done to financially favour certain
writers. The marketing too is one aspect to which the
Academy did not pay much attention. It has largely been
the concern of the agencies. There used to be 58 enlisted
agencies engaged in distribution and sale. After six
new entries, the number now stands at 60.
If development of language and knowledge
is the aim of the Academy, its priorities regarding
choices of titles and how the productions will reach
the target readers must be straightened out. The possibilities
of putting things back onto the rail are still in sight.
The old house can still be the seedbed of new knowledge.
One can only hope that the government, or should one
say whatever the party in power, will let the Academy
choose its own course.